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Taxpayers face long delays as backlogged IRS struggles to open mail, answer phones

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service had barely begun bringing its lowest-paid workers back to the office in late April when someone in the Philadelphia call center came down with a fever, forcing the third-floor staff to head home.

Within two days, an employee in the processing center in Kansas City, Mo., who routes paper checks for deposit was sick with coronavirus symptoms, too. Then the husband of a woman in accounts management in the Covington, Ky., office tested positive, leading managers to presume she was infected.

The three service centers, among 10 campuses nationwide where the IRS is trying to reinstate 11,000 employees, had to partially close for a week for deep-cleaning.

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The infections were just the first hurdle for an agency desperate to reconnect with tens of millions of taxpayers it has struggled to serve since late March.

A tax behemoth that touches virtually every American, the IRS has made the government’s most aggressive effort so far to recall its workforce. But like other federal agencies following President Trump’s order to reopen the country, the IRS is struggling to ensure its employees are safe as it tries to chip away at a crushing backlog.

No federal leaders could fully prepare for a disruption of the pandemic’s scale. Yet the IRS, awash in sensitive taxpayer information, finds itself in a morass brought on by years of crippling budget cuts, cumbersome paper-based systems, and resistance to telework.

The challenges seem insurmountable. Even before the recent COVID-19 infections, few employees felt secure enough to go back. As of Monday, about 3,000 customer-service and clerical workers had volunteered to return to the office, an absentee rate of almost 75 percent.

The staffing shortage will prolong delays — refunds for paper tax filers, responses to amended tax returns, returns frozen after they were flagged for identity theft. The Austin,Texas, office is backed up with 250,000 paper-heavy requests for identification numbers from foreign-born taxpayers who are not eligible for Social Security numbers.

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The agency central to implementing the Treasury Department’s $2.1 trillion economic relief package has offered only recorded messages to millions of taxpayers wanting to ask a human when their refunds and stimulus checks will arrive — although it is slowly opening toll-free phone lines, including for tax preparers, businesses, and those with questions about stimulus checks. Callers can expect long waits.

The IRS has extended the April 15 filing deadline to July 15 for the first time since the date was fixed in 1955. Still, a workforce that sorts mail by hand and conducts some business by fax has been left in the thick of tax season with millions of pieces of untouched correspondence piled into 53-foot trailers at nearby postal centers. Managers in Florence, Ky., had to lease new office space to hold their mail, installing doors and security cameras to ensure the safety of taxpayer information.

‘‘I don’t think I can think of a word to overstate the negative impact on our mission,’’ said Chad Hooper, a quality-review manager who is national president of the IRS’s Professional Managers Association. ‘‘The backlog of work is incredible.’’

The agency managed in three weeks to push out 80 million electronic stimulus payments, the first tranche of 150 million, showing its agility even with software programming language that dates to the Kennedy administration. Electronic tax returns are being processed quickly, but millions of refunds for paper returns will be delayed by months.

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‘‘It’ll be an understatement if I were to call this a unique situation,’’ said Sunita Lough, deputy commissioner for services and enforcement.

‘‘We understand the financial needs of taxpayers and the liquidity and money they need,’’ Lough said. ‘‘But we’ve had to take extraordinary steps to alleviate those concerns and balance the health and safety of our employees.’’

The agency, in a shift, is now requiring workers to return. Commissioner Charles Rettig told his workforce in an e-mail Tuesday that employees in Texas, Utah, and Kentucky who can’t telework must report to their offices June 1 to handle the extended tax-filing season. The staff will be called back in reverse order of seniority, with exceptions for those with existing health conditions.

Other federal agencies are mapping out return-to-the-office strategies, weighing staggered shifts, sustained telework, child-care schedules, public transportation options, and shelter-in-place orders.

They have only vague guidance from the top. The Office of Personnel Management early this month told agencies to begin ‘‘a phased transition to normal operations’’ in line with national guidelines to ‘‘open up America again.’’ They were instructed to take into account state and local restrictions ‘‘and other factors.’’

To coax their $15-an-hour staffers back, managers offered temporary bonus pay and telework when things get back to normal, a boon to employees who’ve never had the luxury of working from home.

In the meantime, those on the front lines of a new, untested pandemic office culture fear for their safety — masks, gloves, and hand-washing breaks at six feet notwithstanding.

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‘‘IRS employees are very proud of our work,’’ said Debbie Mulligan, president of Local 73 of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents 2,200 employees in Cincinnati, Covington, and Florence. ‘‘It’s a source of stress knowing we’re going to come back to a huge pile of work at the apex of refund season.’’

‘‘We’re worried,’’ Mulligan said. ‘‘The IRS doesn’t do contact tracing. No one was made aware who came into contact with the individual who was sick.’’

The returning employees were told to bring their own masks, until a vendor in upstate New York came through at the last minute with 1 million three-ply surgical masks that were shipped around the country. Reusable cloth masks are on order.