'Irresponsible and Unethical': IRS Calls 10,000 Employees Back to Work But Will Not Provide Protective Equipment

The Internal Revenue Service is recalling thousands of employees back to work at offices across the U.S. starting Monday—but the agency will not be providing staffers with personal protective equipment to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

In an email (pdf) obtained by the House Ways and Means Committee, the IRS human capital officer last Friday informed employees that they will be required to bring their own face coverings and gloves when they return to work to perform what the agency described as "mission-critical functions."

"It is completely irresponsible and unethical for the IRS to demand those workers obtain their own protective equipment—this is the responsibility of the federal government to its workers."
—Reps. Richard Neal and John Lewis
"All individuals are to wear cloth face coverings while in IRS facilities and workspaces," the email states. "Although the IRS is seeking to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves, 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."
Thousands of IRS employees have been working from home since the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of offices around the country last month. Many other agency employees have been on paid leave because they either lack telework capacity or have jobs that must be done in person.
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS workers, told the Wall Street Journal that it expects around 10,000 agency employees to return to work in person at offices around the nation.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis (D-Ga.) said in a joint statement Saturday that "it is completely irresponsible and unethical for the IRS to demand those workers obtain their own protective equipment—this is the responsibility of the federal government to its workers."

"We find the IRS' demands of these workers 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 due to the virus," said Neal and Lewis. "The IRS should not require any employees it deems essential to report to work until it is able to provide those individuals with the protective equipment they are required to wear."

As Government Executive reported Monday, "IRS will ask workers to come back on a voluntary basis with incentive pay, though it will subsequently require additional employees to return if a sufficient number of volunteers do not come forward."
The IRS decision to recall employees without providing safety gear comes as the Trump administration continues to face criticism for failing to provide adequate PPE to essential workers across the nation.

Last week, as Common Dreams reported, dozens of nurses gathered outside the White House to protest the administration's refusal to heed their calls for more protective equipment and stricter safety standards for employers.
In a letter to President Donald Trump earlier this month, more than 100 labor unions and advocacy groups wrote that "only the federal government has the tools available to maximize protections for these workers, yet you are failing to provide the leadership that this moment demands."

"Janitors are deep cleaning buildings, teachers' aides are delivering meals to children at home, warehouse and manufacturing workers are making and distributing essential goods, home care providers are caring for the most vulnerable, public service workers are maintaining essential services, bus operators are taking essential workers to their jobs," the letter states. "All at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus without enough PPE to lessen exposure."
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