IRS dangles telecommuting to lure new recruits for beleaguered agency
The IRS is in the midst of a return-to-the-office effort that will offer many employees the opportunity to telecommute some or most of their time, which agency officials and union leaders see as a recruitment advantage.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced the agency to close its offices for several months in 2020. While employees tasked with processing paper tax returns and other documents have worked in person over the past two years, many other employees have continued to work remotely.
The IRS takes a step-by-step approach getting everyone back into the office, which began in late April with members of leadership coming in at least once per pay period. From May 8, employees without formal teleworking arrangements were required to return to the office, other employees could do so voluntarily.
“We’re seeing increased foot traffic in our buildings again,” said Geralda Larkins, project manager for the return to office at the IRS, in an interview.
Normal operations are scheduled to begin on June 25, when employees must follow the specific rules of their telecommuting agreements, including whether they must be in the office a certain number of days per pay period or work within a certain distance from their office.
The return to office comes as the agency attempts to fill thousands of vacancies Entry-level jobs in machining centers and agency helplines to a new leadership role focuses on improving the taxpayer experience. Like many employers during The Great Resignation Recruitment and retention is a challenge for the IRSbut agency leaders are looking at the expanded flexibility of remote work as a recruiting tool for many roles.
“We recognize that flexibility makes us competitive with other agencies and the private sector, and as such we continue to encourage our flexibility to ensure we remain competitive,” Larkins said.
Most continue to work from home
The agency offered remote work to tens of thousands of employees ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, about half of the 78,000 IRS employees were eligible to telecommute, according to a recent Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration report. On average, about a third of agency workers telecommuted at least once a week between October 2019 and early March 2020.
According to TIGTA, the number of remote IRS workers increased dramatically in the second half of March 2020 and steadily increased thereafter. In the week ended March 12 — about two years after the pandemic began — nearly 65,000 IRS employees reported telecommuting time, the watchdog said.
It remains to be seen how many IRS employees will choose to telecommute and how regularly those employees will work from home once normal operations resume. However, executives from IRS employee organizations found that there are more jobs suitable for remote work than before the pandemic.
The most recent contract with the National Treasury Employees Union, which went into effect in October, has expanded the number of jobs eligible for remote work. For example, the customer service representatives who staff the IRS helplines are now authorized to work outside of the agency’s call centers.
“Must have” recruiting tool
Chad Hooper, executive director of the Professional Managers Association, which represents IRS managers, said the agency needed to put special emphasis on its telecommuting options as it seeks to fill high-skill IT roles and younger workers. Both are areas where the IRS has particularly struggled to attract new employees, he said.
For those IT jobs that are important to fund billions of dollars in spending technical maintenance and upgradesthe agency competes with private employers who can offer much higher wages.
Executives at the IRS’s human capital office “really understand” the need to highlight telecommuting opportunities, Hooper said.
NTEU National President Tony Reardon agreed that promoting remote work opportunities was “absolutely imperative” for the IRS. In addition to the recruitment benefits, he pointed out that teleworking will reduce the number of workers in offices at one time and make social distancing easier.
Reardon suggested that the IRS should consider maintaining maximum telecommuting for a little longer as many areas of the U.S. are seeing increases in COVID-19 cases. He acknowledged that there are probably some positions where it is not feasible for the IRS to continue maximum telecommuting, but said the IRS should at least try to do so in medium- or high-transmission counties.
“I just think it’s something that should be investigated,” Reardon said.
The IRS said in a statement to Bloomberg Tax the agency is monitoring the number of Covid-19 cases and will “adjust its mitigation strategies as needed.”
Virtual work to continue
While additional IRS employees are expected to join IRS offices in the coming weeks, agency employees are expected to continue completing some tasks virtually.
For example, Scott Irick, chief audit officer in the IRS’s Small Business/Self-Employed Division, said at a conference in May that he expects virtual audits to continue.
In many cases, the flexibility that remote work offers made things easier for taxpayers interacting with the agency.
Andy Keyso, head of the independent IRS appeals office, said video appeals conferencing has a “real role to play.” While his employees can schedule in-person conferencing when they return to their offices, Keyso said he intends for video conferencing to remain available.
“Some taxpayers just aren’t anywhere near an appeals office,” Keyso said. “They don’t want to come into an appeals office, and they want something more than just a phone call.”