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IRS Tells Thousands To Return To Work, With Their Own Face Masks

The IRS is calling back thousands of workers but says they must provide their own face coverings because the agency has not yet secured enough personal protective equipment.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
The IRS is calling back thousands of workers but says they must provide their own face coverings because the agency has not yet secured enough personal protective equipment.

The Internal Revenue Service has told some 10,000 of its employees that they're needed back in the office as early as Monday — and they'll need to bring their own masks.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee say it's "completely irresponsible and unethical for the IRS to demand those workers obtain their own protective equipment."

The panel released an email from the agency, which said the IRS was trying to obtain personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, but that "each IRS facility may not be able to initially procure the PPE for all employees immediately. Employees are therefore required to bring personal face coverings for their nose and mouth area when they come to work."

Those who don't, the memo warned, may be sent back home.

In a statement, the chairman of the Ways and Means panel, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., and Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis, D-Ga., said the IRS demand is "especially troubling" given that earlier this week, Commissioner Charles Rettig informed congressional staff that 100 IRS employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and four of the agency's employees have died because of the virus.

The lawmakers said the IRS should not require any employees it deems essential to report to work until it can provide them with the protective equipment they are required to wear.

The IRS had not responded to a request for comment at publication time.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents many IRS workers, said it "appreciates" that the agency has first asked for volunteers, who will receive incentive pay, to return to the workplace.

The NTEU says it is "communicating with the IRS about working conditions at those facilities to make sure there are adequate cleaning and disinfecting supplies, accommodations to allow for physical distancing among employees and personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves."

The "mission critical" responsibilities that the returning IRS employees perform include opening taxpayer correspondence, handling tax documents, taking taxpayer telephone calls and performing other functions related to the filing season.

The union said if there are not enough volunteers, "the agency will direct employees to return to the workplace."

The workers are needed at 10 IRS offices around the country. It's apparently the first large-scale recall of employees sent home by the federal government since the start of the pandemic.

The agency extended the filing deadline for this year's income tax returns from April 15 to July 15.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.