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Practitioner Services a Question Mark as IRS Reopens

Posted on Apr. 28, 2020

The IRS’s plans to reopen parts of the agency with incentive-paid employees returning voluntarily have left some tax practitioners with as many questions as answers.

The National Association of Enrolled Agents has been flooded with questions since the IRS announcement April 25, said Jeffery S. Trinca, NAEA’s outside legislative counsel. “This is a stress test for the [IRS] system,” he said, adding that “we know nothing” of the agency’s plans for the days and weeks to come.

The IRS has been largely shut down since March 27, when it issued a coronavirus emergency evacuation order sending tens of thousands of employees at its 10 campuses to work from home. That followed a shutdown of e-service help desks, suspension of many collections and exams, and three-month postponements of deadlines to file tax returns and make payments.

The IRS will be relying on “several thousand” employees who have volunteered to return to work with incentive pay, it said in its April 25 statement.

“Bringing employees back to work is essential to address mission-critical needs for the nation, and the IRS is an essential component to our country’s whole-of-government approach to confronting the COVID-19 pandemic,” the IRS statement said.

The agency’s April 24 internal memo calling back employees to perform essential services offered relief for banks and borrowers with the reopening of the income verification express service (IVES), Trinca noted, but no relief for tax practitioners reliant on the dormant centralized authorization file (CAF).

“CAF is our IVES,” Trinca explained, because tax practitioners rely as much on the CAF system to do business as banks rely on IVES to qualify loans. But while the IRS announcement said it will reopen IVES, start processing paper and refundable credit tax returns, answer taxpayers’ questions on its toll-free lines, and resume some lien and levy functions, there’s been no mention of CAF, he said.

‘Lost in the Crowd’

Enrolled agent Phyllis Jo Kubey wondered whether tax practitioner services would be reopened “to the tax pros who work for many taxpayers and currently, with a few exceptions, have no avenues for inbound communication via phone, fax, mail, or digital communication.”

Trinca said that reopening the practitioner priority hotline and related services for tax professionals must remain segregated from the general taxpayer hotlines. Merging the two services “would be the end for us. . . . We’d get lost in the crowd,” he said.

Thousands of IRS workers could probably be employed just sorting the backlog of mail and faxes, some reportedly stored in trailers and post offices, Trinca added. “We’re a little bit worried that as typically happens, the practitioners are lost. They’re just left out of the process,” he said.

Bring Your Own Mask

Kubey said she’s concerned for the safety of IRS employees “since we don’t know exactly where they will be or what they will be doing — with the [personal protective equipment] responsibility on the employees.”

In its internal memo April 24, the IRS said it expects to receive delivery of some personal protective equipment for its workers as soon as this week. But it also advised employees to bring their own masks, including homemade items, to cover their faces while entering and leaving facilities, gathering in any common areas, and at most work sites.

Employees without personal protective equipment may be sent home, according to the memo.

In an April 25 statement, the National Treasury Employees Union said that 10,000 workers were scheduled to return, and that if not enough employees volunteer to return to work, “the agency will direct employees to return to the workplace.”

The NTEU on April 27 issued a list of health and safety conditions it expects the federal government to meet before requiring employees to return to their workplace.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., and Oversight Subcommittee Chair John Lewis, D-Ga., protested in an April 25 release that the IRS “is expecting entirely too much of employees who are likely distraught over the health risks returning to work presents for themselves and for their families, as well as the potential repercussions they could face if they do not clock in on Monday with the mandated equipment in-hand.”

According to the release, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told congressional staff the previous week that 100 IRS employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and that four had died from it.

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