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Shutdown Squeezes IRS Workers Just As The Tax-Filing Season Is About To Start

Jan 23, 2019
Originally published on January 24, 2019 9:01 am

Even in a normal year, taxes can be complicated and stressful — for taxpayers and IRS workers alike. But this year is shaping up to be worse than usual.

The IRS starts processing returns on Monday, implementing big changes in tax law while having to run on half the staff because of the ongoing government shutdown.

Last week, the IRS ordered about 30,000 furloughed workers back to work without pay. Priscilla Clowers of Orange Park, Fla., resumed training on the new tax code on Friday, so she can answer calls from IRS customers.

But she's also fretting about how to pay for her wedding, which is planned for March 30.

"I'm sitting here like: 'Oh my God, this can't be happening,' " she says. " 'I still gotta get my dress. Oh my God, I got to pay the vendor, the wedding planner, the caterer, and I gotta buy my cake.' "

If she doesn't get paid on Feb. 1, the reception is off, she says.

"I haven't even called anybody because it's like somewhere deep down inside of me I got faith in God that something's gonna work out," says Clowers, a Navy veteran.

IRS worker Priscilla Clowers, who is due to marry Herbert Giddens Jr. in March, says she will have to cancel their wedding reception if she doesn't get paid soon.
Photo courtesy of Marvin Williams

She says mounting anxiety makes focusing on the classroom training difficult. "We're doing a refresher of everything that we previously learned before we left," she says. "I'm trying to get back into the swing of things, but my mind is just on everything that's going on at home."

Many furloughed workers are preoccupied with their financial struggles, says Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 70,000 IRS workers. The union says some workers have been unable to report to work.

"How are they going to handle commuting costs, child care costs" or even buying lunch? he says.

So what do all these complexities mean for the 150 million Americans filing individual tax returns and for those expecting refunds?

"I don't know how that's going to turn out," says Christopher Rizek, a tax attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. "I think everybody is hopeful, but not a lot of people are optimistic."

He says the shutdown exacerbates a long-standing problem at the understaffed agency.

"There's been a big brain drain at the IRS, particularly at the more senior experienced levels," Rizek says. "Why would someone continue to work for the IRS when they can go work for an accounting firm, do the same work for more money and less stress?"

Automated systems might offset some of the burden.

Kathy Pickering, executive director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block, notes that 97 percent of taxpayers use software to prepare their returns, and most of them file electronically as well.

Those taxpayers have a good shot at seeing their returns processed normally, she says. But that's not the case for forms filed the old-fashioned way. "Any paper filing is just necessarily going to take longer," she says.

Also, many taxpayers will see changes to their anticipated refunds because of the new tax law, Pickering says, which will likely result in more calls to the already-jammed IRS hotlines.

Some people say taxpayers should feel the pain.

Penny Hays, a 35-year veteran IRS worker in Seattle, says she and her husband are living off his disability benefits, but money for food is getting tight.

Hays, 59, feels financially pinched from the shutdown and argues taxpayers should, too — if nothing else to demonstrate that IRS workers provide essential services. If they don't, she says, "it makes the American people feel like there's no nothing going on, there's no big deal, everything's working for them."

Hays says she followed her mother's footsteps in working for the IRS, and at the time, she was proud because the job was secure. But that's no longer the case. She says the effects of the shutdown will linger by making it even harder for the IRS to recruit workers.

"It's disheartening, because you see these people walk out the door who have so much job knowledge, and there's nobody coming up through the ranks for me to give my knowledge to," Hays says.

But at least one new IRS worker, Priscilla Clowers, plans to stick it out. She plans to get married soon and says she hopes she'll get paid in time to have her reception.

"But if not, like my fiancé says, all he needs is the preacher and me," she says and laughs.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The shutdown is rippling through the government, including the IRS. The agency starts processing tax returns on Monday. Besides the shutdown, the agency is dealing with the biggest changes to tax laws in three decades.

Last week, the IRS ordered nearly half its staff - that's about 30,000 furloughed workers - back to work without pay. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on how that is affecting the agency.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Priscilla Clowers returned to the office last week to resume training on the new tax code so she can answer IRS customer service calls. But she's also fretting about how to pay for her wedding planned for March 30.

PRISCILLA CLOWERS: I'm sitting here like, oh, my God, this can't be happening. I still got to get my dress. Oh, my God, I've got to pay the vendors, the wedding planner, the caterer. And I got to buy my cake.

NOGUCHI: Clowers says if she's still not getting paid February 1, the reception is off.

CLOWERS: I haven't even called anybody because it's like somewhere deep down inside of me, I got faith in God that something is going to work out.

NOGUCHI: Clowers, a Navy veteran, says the mounting anxiety makes focusing hard.

CLOWERS: We're doing a refresher of everything that we previously learned before we left. I'm trying to get back into the swing of things, but my mind is just on everything that's going on at home.

NOGUCHI: Even in a normal year, taxes can be complicated and stressful for taxpayers and IRS workers alike. But this year, the agency is trying to implement big changes in tax law while many employees are absent or preoccupied with their personal financial struggles. Tony Reardon is national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, representing 70,000 IRS workers. The union says some workers have been unable to report to work.

TONY REARDON: I mean, how are they going to handle commuting costs, child care costs, I mean, even when you think about, OK, so how are they going to afford lunch?

NOGUCHI: So what does that mean for the 150 million Americans filing individual tax returns and those expecting refunds? Christopher Rizek is a tax attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown.

CHRISTOPHER RIZEK: I don't know how that's going to turn out. I think everybody is hopeful, but not a lot of people are optimistic.

NOGUCHI: The shutdown, he says, exacerbates an existing problem.

RIZEK: There's been a big brain drain at the IRS, particularly at the more senior, experienced levels, you know, because why would someone continue to work for the IRS when they can go work for an accounting firm, do the same work for more money and less stress?

NOGUCHI: Automated systems might offset some of the burden. Kathy Pickering is executive director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block. She notes the vast majority of taxpayers - 97 percent - use software to prepare taxes, and most of them file electronically as well.

KATHY PICKERING: If you prepare your return using software and you electronically file and you ask for a direct deposit, your return has a really good chance of flowing through without interruption.

NOGUCHI: That's not the case for forms filed the old-fashioned way.

PICKERING: Any paper filing is just necessarily going to take longer.

NOGUCHI: Also, Pickering says, many taxpayers will see changes to their anticipated refunds because of the new tax law. That will likely result in more calls to the already-jammed IRS hotlines. Some people say taxpayers should feel the pain. Penny Hays is a 35-year veteran IRS worker in Seattle. She says she feels financially pinched from the shutdown and argues taxpayers should, too, if nothing else, to demonstrate that IRS workers provide essential services. If they don't, she says...

PENNY HAYS: It makes the American people feel like there's nothing going on. It's no big deal. Everything's working for them.

NOGUCHI: Hays says the effects of the shutdown will linger by making it harder for the IRS to recruit.

HAYS: It's disheartening because you see these people walk out the door who have so much job knowledge. And I have a lot of job knowledge, but I have no one to give it to.

NOGUCHI: But at least one new IRS worker plans to stick it out. Priscilla Clowers, who's getting married in March, says she hopes she'll get paid in time to have a reception.

CLOWERS: But if not, like my fiance says, all he needs is the preacher and me (laughter).

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.