The Internal Revenue Service found itself severely short staffed in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Government Executive reported at the time, a significant portion of the IRS workforce was sent home without the capacity to telework when the agency opted to close its offices. A new inspector general report found 35,000 IRS workers were placed on “weather and safety leave” in late March 2020—meaning they were sent home with full pay, but not working—representing about 44% of the total workforce. The employee unavailability came at an inopportune time for IRS, which had just delayed the tax filing deadline and been tasked with delivering stimulus checks to millions of Americans.
Employees told Government Executive at the time they were ready and willing to work remotely, but the agency told them it did not have sufficient laptops or other resources to support their telework. The number of employees on administrative leave remained high for several weeks, the IG found, but began to drop precipitously in early May. By that month, IRS had distributed 12,600 laptops to employees to enable them to work remotely.
The agency continued to identify employees who could work from home and distribute the proper equipment to them, eventually cutting the staffers on weather and safety leave to 6,700 by late September. In addition to distributing 18,000 laptops by that time, the agency slowly began reopening it offices and recalling workers.
By early June, about 15,000 IRS employees reported to their offices at least part time. By mid-July, that jumped to more than 23,000 workers.
In October last year, IRS began requiring employees to provide documentation from a doctor to demonstrate they were at risk of severe illness if they contracted COVID-19 to remain at home and on safety leave. Previously, the workers simply had to self-identify as such. Over the next two months, the IG found, the number of employees using that leave category dropped to 4,600. IRS said it decided to require proof to allow employees to remain on safety leave because hospitals were no longer overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and therefore “the timing was right” to seek validation. The IG plans to further investigate the use of administrative leave and release a final report on its findings.
The proportion of IRS employees unable to work and still receiving their pay has further dropped, as the agency made a targeted effort to recall those workers in February.
“This is our busiest time of the year,” Sarah Maxwell, an IRS spokesperson said at the time. “In light of that, the IRS is taking another critical step to help taxpayers.” She added the recall decision “was made after extensive discussions on the need to balance serving taxpayers and ensuring employees’ safety in the workplace” and the agency “remains committed to taking all appropriate workplace precautions.”
Employees at the time expressed concern that IRS management was failing to enforce its safety protocols, noting colleagues were refusing to wear masks and physical distancing was impossible.
“We know we are walking into a petri dish every day,” Cherie Gilmore, an IRS manager in Ogden, Utah, said at the time, “but we feel a responsibility to the taxpayers so we continue to risk it.”
All told, the IG found in a separate newly released report, 3,404 IRS employees have tested positive for COVID-19. About 45% of those had reported to an IRS facility in the 14 days preceding their positive test. IRS’ safety guidelines to employees generally complied with federal policies and best practices, the IG said. It noted that several IRS employees have died from COVID-19 related symptoms.