Less than a week before tax season is slated to open for the new filing season, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doors remain largely closed. However, as part of the IRS Shutdown Contingency Plan, 46,052 employees have been designated as “excepted/exempt,” sending tens of thousands of IRS employees back to work without pay. However, some are fighting back by asking for permission to stay home. Those absences are throwing the tax season open into question and raising concerns about whether the IRS will be able to process tax returns and issue taxpayer refunds on time.
IRS employees who are asking to stay home are using a clause in their union contracts that offers an exemption for an economic hardship. The exemption is based on financial circumstances and is not limited to the shutdown.
That union, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), represents 150,000 employees at 33 federal agencies and departments including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food & Drug Administration, the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
NTEU President Tony Reardon explained the exemption, saying, “After a month with no pay, real hardship does exist for IRS employees including not having the money needed to get back and forth to work or to pay for the child care necessary to return to work right now. Emergencies can occur at any time so the hardship exemption can be requested during a lapse in appropriations when an employee is suddenly unable to return to work. That is why the exemption exists. The longer employees go without pay, more face financial hardships.”
Employees have already missed one paycheck due to the shutdown. IRS employees will skip a second paycheck next week if the government does not reopen. That’s a tough situation for many workers, especially since nearly 80% of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck.
There are no hard and fast numbers to confirm how many employees are calling out, but anecdotes suggest that the numbers are climbing. Reardon says the actions aren’t organized, but the unions do understand why so many employees are taking advantage of the provision. He says, “NTEU does not support employees using it as a form of protest but we do support people using it for true financial hardship.”
However, Reardon says, “I believe that IRS management understands the stress that employees are under and is doing its best to accommodate the very real hardships employees are experiencing.” Under the exemption, IRS employees can take days off without dipping into their available sick days. Exemptions are made on a case-by-case basis and must be approved by a manager.
Employees, he notes, want to come back to work, adding, “I want to reiterate that even as IRS employees continue to struggle with a lack of pay, they are dedicated to their jobs and returning to work, as directed, if at all possible.
The IRS, for its part, still expects to open on time. In a statement, the IRS said that the agency “is continuing its work in preparation for next week’s filing season. We are continuing our recall operations, and we continue to assess the situation at this time.”
Tax season is set to open on January 28, 2019. The IRS has previously confirmed that refunds will be issued – though the timing of those refunds may now be a question (you can read my take on when you might expect your tax refund here).
For more about what’s expected to be open during the filing season, click here.