The Internal Revenue Service is recalling more than half of its workforce for the upcoming tax season, meaning more than 46,000 people will be forced to work without pay.
The agency announced its new plan on Tuesday, the 25th day of the partial government shutdown — the longest in US history. With no clear signs of when the government would reopen, IRS officials said they would not let a lack of funds prevent Americans from getting their 2018 tax refunds.
“We are committed to ensuring that taxpayers receive their refunds notwithstanding the government shutdown. I appreciate the hard work of the employees and their commitment to the taxpayers during this period,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement earlier this month.
But that means an unprecedented number of IRS staff will be required to work without pay. Already, roughly 80,000 IRS employees have missed one paycheck, with many of them considered nonessential and not able to work. As in previous shutdowns, employees who are critical to government operations have continued to work: just over 12,000 people at the IRS, including those involved in the agency's law enforcement activities.
But now, thousands of people who process tax returns will join them, bringing the total number of IRS employees working without pay during the shutdown to 46,052.
"We work to help the taxpayers. We're on the phones with them, we’re talking with them. We feel like we’re doing a good service to our country and our fellow citizens," said Jenny Brown, an IRS worker in Ogden, Utah, who leads the local chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union. "And then to be shut down like this without knowing when our next paycheck is coming, it’s really heartbreaking."
Brown told BuzzFeed News she's worked for the IRS for 33 years and has weathered shutdowns before. She's worked with her bank to delay payment of some of her bills, but the financial hit has been even harder for many of the 4,000 workers she represents. Renters are being stuck with late fees from landlords, parents are struggling to cover day care costs, and some people have turned to food banks at local churches, she said. The IRS is the biggest employer in Ogden, she added, and often a family's entire income can be tied to the agency.
"Employees are wondering if it's time to quit this job and go look for something else, and I don’t have an answer for them," Brown said. "Because I don’t know how long this will take."
The first quarter of the year tends to be busy at the IRS, and the agency will begin accepting individuals' tax returns on Jan. 28. Fewer customer service representatives will be answering questions by phone, and walk-in assistance centers — for taxpayers submitting large amounts of cash, recovering from identity theft, or other hardships — will stay closed.
Brown doesn't remember IRS employees being told to work without pay in the past, except for the minority who are critical to protecting life and property. She added she's gotten little explanation about how the Trump administration has determined who must work and who shouldn't.
"The [shutdown] in 2013, I always felt like I could see a light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "I could see, OK, it looks like this is going somewhere. They’re going to find an answer to this. But with this one, I just don’t see that yet."
Since the money for taxpayers' refunds isn't tied to Congress's annual funding, the IRS has said it may pay them out during the shutdown and recall whoever is necessary to make that happen. The employees' union has disagreed, saying in a lawsuit that the Trump administration should only require truly essential employees to keep working during a shutdown.
Being out of work is frustrating for employees, Brown said, and so is keeping gas in the car and packing a lunch only to go to work for no pay.
"We are people too," she said. "We have families. We have bills. We have kids that need to eat. We have kids that are going to college. We have financial responsibilities, and we want to get back to work so we can meet those financial responsibilities."