OGDEN — With last Wednesday’s earthquake in Utah and lingering coronavirus concerns, workers at the many Ogden-area U.S. Internal Revenue Service offices are feeling the jitters.
Even as union and IRS reps go back and forth on possible workplace changes in light of coronavirus concerns, many are “really on edge right now,” said Robert Lawrence. He’s an IRS employee himself and head of the union representing area workers, Chapter 67 of the National Treasury Employees Union.
“It seems like they’re doing the opposite of what they’re asking everyone else to do,” Lawrence said, alluding to messaging from public health officials about keeping a safe distance from others to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The majority of IRS employees “are not eligible for (telecommuting) and they are still coming to work.”
Still, a written message Friday from IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig indicated positive movement, even if specifics of a possible fix have yet to be pinpointed. In that message, the IRS head outlined several broad measures to be implemented over the near term to address safety worries — including cutting staffing in half.
“For mission-critical operations that require people to be in a campus or work setting, we will be immediately reducing staffing by approximately 50% to enhance social distancing,” Rettig said in the message, supplied to national NTEU reps. Among other measures, he also said employees at higher risk of infection would be able to take leave, if they don’t hold key functions.
As the largest employer in Ogden, with some 4,500 to 5,000 employees in the IRS offices scattered around the city, the stakes are notable. Many IRS employees work in cubicles in relative close proximity of one another, Lawrence said, but there’s no telling what sort of precautions workers take when they’re off the clock. And while acknowledging the presence of disinfectant supplies at IRS offices, he maintains that stronger measures are merited.
“These are unprecedented times. It might take some unprecedented solution to get through it,” he said.
Agency representatives didn’t respond to Standard-Examiner queries seeking comment. But in a statement Friday on the IRS website, the agency said it’s very mindful of the situation.
“As the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis continues to develop, the IRS is taking multiple steps to protect our employees, America’s taxpayers, communities and our partners,” the statement reads.
IRS taxpayer assistance centers, where filers can go to get questions answered, have been closed and “face-to-face service” across the country has been indefinitely halted. At the same time, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeted Friday that the filing and payment deadline on tax returns would be extended from April 15 to July 15, which could theoretically ease the workload on IRS employees.
Whatever the case, Friday’s IRS statement didn’t specifically address the situation in IRS processing centers around Ogden, and NTEU President Tony Reardon echoed Lawrence’s observations.
“There are about 4,500 frontline employees at the IRS Ogden campus who are extremely concerned about their health and safety during this coronavirus pandemic,” Reardon said in a statement to the Standard-Examiner. “They do important work processing tax returns, which means many of them are not able to work from home and too many of them are working side-by-side, directly against the government’s own advice to maintain physical separation.”
Lawrence said there’s been talk of requiring that only IRS employees deemed “essential” be required to show up, which would help create distance between workers, thus minimizing the threat of coronavirus infection. Similar to the proposal in Rettig’s message, Lawrence also floated the idea of having just half the regular workforce show up each shift, also enabling workers to put more space between themselves.
Productivity might go down, he said, “but it’s better than an outbreak shutting the whole thing down.”
The NTEU on Monday called for stronger measures — including closure of all federal buildings with 50 or more workers.
“State and local officials and private companies are all ramping down, and the federal government — where possible — should do the same,” Reardon said in Monday’s statement.
The NTEU, according to its website, represents about 150,000 workers in 33 different agencies and departments.