National union president calls for Austin IRS facility closure amid COVID-19 case surge

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) – As COVID-19 surges in Texas, and the nation’s tax filing deadline looms, the national president of the union for Internal Revenue Service employees has called for the agency to close its Austin Service Center amid a rising number of virus cases.

Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told KXAN as of Wednesday “29 employees at the Austin Service Center have tested positive,” and he asked IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig within the last week to close the facility.

Reardon said he has not heard back on that request.

“It is not appropriate to send people into the workplace to potentially get sick with COVID-19 and die,” Reardon said. “No federal employee, no employee anywhere, should have to risk their life in order to perform their duty in an office environment.”

Additionally, Reardon said the Austin IRS facility does not have adequate sanitization supplies and social distancing guidelines are not being strictly followed.

In a statement, the IRS acknowledged a rise in Texas cases, but the agency attributed that growth to testing. The IRS did not confirm if there have been 29 cases at the facility.

“While there are increases in cases for the IRS in Texas, these cases are correlating to the state’s increased testing and trace capabilities,” IRS spokesperson Jodie Reynolds said in an email. “The IRS emphasizes the majority of the uptick in positive case notifications are employees who have been out of the workplace for extended periods, in some instances since mid-March.”

KXAN began looking into coronavirus cases at the Austin IRS facility after a concerned worker provided internal emails indicating at least 15 workers in Austin had contracted the virus in June.

The IRS has not responded to a request to authenticate those emails.

The agency also has not responded to specific questions about how it has responded to cases in Austin and how it plans to keep workers safe. KXAN will update this story as more information becomes available from the agency.

There are roughly 2,400 total employees at the Austin Service Center working on multiple shifts, Reardon said. He did not pan the IRS’ entire response to COVID-19. He said the agency’s coronavirus response was adequate in many respects, but that the current situation at the Austin Service Center presented an “unacceptable risk.”

Reardon said all the Center’s employees should stay home, and those employees that could not telecommute should be put on “weather and safety leave.”

Reynolds said the IRS will continue watching the situation closely.

“The safety of our employees and taxpayers remains a top priority,” according to the IRS statement.

Cases ballooning

Cases of the virus have skyrocketed in Texas in June, hitting an all-time high Wednesday with over 8,000 new cases, according to state health officials.

The ballooning case count has prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to reassess business openings and call for certain businesses, like bars and tubing enterprises, to close.

The rise in cases comes at a critical time for the IRS, with the nation’s July 15 tax filing deadline just two weeks away.

For months, Reardon has called for the federal government to push the filing deadline from July 15 to Oct. 15, to relieve pressure on the IRS, and taxpayers, amid the pandemic. He acknowledged Wednesday the chance of a deadline shift was likely “zero.”

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Monday the July 15 deadline would stick and those needing more time should file for an extension, according to a department statement.

“After consulting with various external stakeholders, we have decided to have taxpayers request an extension if more time is needed,” Mnuchin said in the prepared statement.  “I would encourage Americans to file their taxes as soon as possible, so those who are due refunds can receive them quickly.”

‘Chaotic’

Aside from the IRS issues inside the IRS, taxpayers and the tax preparation professionals have been under added pressure in handling 2019 filings.

Cindy Hockenberry, director of tax research and government relations with the National Association of Tax Professionals, said this tax season has been a uniquely difficult.

“Tax season as a whole, if you want to sum it up in a word, is chaotic,” Hockenberry said.

She said tax preparers have had to deal with a slew of deadline changes and new federal acts that have affected filings.

In addition to stimulus packages, she said tax advisors are still getting their arms around the “Taxpayer First Act,” the 2017 “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” the “SECURE Act” and the “CARES Act.”

“We had to really stay on our toes to make sure that we caught everything that the IRS was issuing, in the way of guidance. And then, to their defense, they were dealing with a skeleton crew as well,” Hockenberry said. “Tax preparers couldn’t get through to the IRS if they had issues with their clients. There wasn’t anybody to answer the phone.”

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