Hundreds of Internal Revenue Service employees have received permission to skip work during the partial government shutdown due to financial hardship, and union leaders said Tuesday they expect that number to surge as part of a coordinated protest that could hamper the government’s ability to process taxpayer refunds on time.
The Trump administration last week ordered at least 30,000 IRS workers back to their offices, where they have been working to process refunds without pay. It was one of the biggest steps the government has taken to mitigate the shutdown’s impact on Americans' lives.
But IRS employees across the country — some in coordinated protest, others out of financial necessity — won’t be clocking in, according to Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, and several local union officials. The work action is widespread and includes employees from a processing center in Ogden, Utah, to the Brookhaven campus on New York’s Long Island.
The move is the leading edge of pushback from within the IRS, and it signals the potential for civil servants to take actions that could slow or cripple government functions as the shutdown’s political stalemate continues in Washington. U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors have begun to call in sick, Transportation Security Administration sickouts at airports have been rising, and federal law enforcement agencies say the shutdown is increasing stress among agents and affecting investigations.
"They are definitely angry that they're not getting paid, and maybe some of them are angry enough to express their anger this way," said Reardon, whose union represents 150,000 employees at 33 federal agencies and departments. "But these employees live paycheck to paycheck, and they can't scrape up the dollars to get to work or pay for child care."
Not receiving pay for more than a month has taken a toll on employees across the government, but especially on those who are not in high-salary jobs. The employees summoned back from furlough to process tax refunds are paid between $25,800 and $51,000 a year, depending on their seniority. IRS employees will miss a second paycheck Monday if the government does not reopen this week.
"I'm at the point where I cannot afford to go to work," said Marissa Scott, 31, an IRS customer service representative who is out on hardship leave. Scott lives outside Kansas City, Missouri, and drives 98 miles round trip to work each day. "I cannot afford to fill my gas tank."
Scott, who has worked at the IRS for four years, says she typically helps as many as 50 people a day with their returns during tax season, including U.S. troops stationed overseas. She said the shutdown could delay refunds for months, and without employees like her on the job, "it's going to be a disaster all around."
Many of the IRS employees who are choosing not to come to work despite getting called back are taking advantage of a provision in the union contract that allows them to miss work if they suffer a "hardship" during a shutdown, according to the labor groups.
That could mean a blown car tire, an empty gas tank or a child-care bill.
"I have fielded no less than 30 to 40 calls, emails or text messages about hardship requests from employees daily since Thursday," said Shannon Ellis, president of the NTEU's Chapter 66 in Kansas City.
In Andover, Massachusetts, more than 100 customer service representatives, electronic filing workers and other IRS employees plan to use the hardship exemption and won't report to work, said Gary Karibian, chapter president of a local union.
"I would say a majority of employees are calling out under hardship," Karibian said. "I'm getting reports whole teams are requesting out. One person told me, 'I'm the only one on my team here.' "
The union lacks an official head count of absent workers — the IRS declined to share data on hardship exemptions — but staffers in Fresno, California, Austin, Texas, Andover, Kansas City, and Atlanta, among other locations, say they won't be showing up for work, Reardon said.
Duncan Giles, who has worked for 24 years at an IRS call center in Indianapolis, said more workers are requesting hardship leave as they learn it exists.
"The more this goes on and the tougher it is to get to work — they simply cannot afford it," said Giles, president of NTEU Chapter 49, noting that about 30 of the 170 employees who have been called back to work in Indianapolis have requested the exemption. "Every single person wants to be at work. They want to help the American taxpayer. But we have to pay for gas and child care."
The hardship exemption allows IRS employees not to have to use sick days to be absent from work, and managers must approve the exemptions.
Lawmakers also have heard reports of IRS staffers intending to miss work and are planning to ask Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for details when he testifies on Capitol Hill this Thursday, a House aide said.
The IRS declined to say how many workers are on hardship leave, and spokesman Matt Leas said the IRS is continuing its work to prepare for the beginning of filing season next week.
"We are continuing our recall operations, and we continue to assess the situation at this time," Leas said.
The IRS employees' moves come amid broad uncertainty about the Trump administration’s attempts to minimize the impact of the shutdown. On Sunday, the number of Transportation Security Administration agents who failed to show up for work hit a record 10 percent, resulting in long wait times. Guards at federal prisons also are calling out at high rates, with union officials at 10 prisons contacted by The Washington Post this month saying the number of employees skipping work has doubled.
As a result, officers who report for duty often are working 16-hour shifts, and prison secretaries and janitors are being forced to patrol the halls and yards.
"All I have is pepper spray and a radio to call for help," said 52-year-old Opal Brown, who works as a secretary at Hazelton Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia.
The FBI Agents Association said in a report Tuesday that the shutdown is hampering the ability of agents to perform their "duties and fund necessary operations and investigations."
USDA meat inspectors also have began calling in sick — in numbers large enough to trigger an agency crackdown. The inspectors were told Jan. 11 to bring in a doctor's note, even if they were ill for a single day, records show.
Six days later, after protests from union leaders, agency officials reverted to existing policy, which calls for a doctor's note after three days.
Some front-line managers at the IRS have threatened their employees and said they could lose their jobs if they put in for the exemption, but Reardon, the union leader, said most have been instructed by senior management to approve the requests.
IRS employees are some of the most impactful federal workers caught in the middle of the shutdown, as the tax filing season begins and millions of Americans are expected to seek tax refunds in February. Last year, more than $140 billion in tax refunds was paid out through early March, according to IRS data.
Trump has expressed an interest in making sure that tax refunds are paid out next month, believing that if they are delayed he could face major public backlash. His budget office took the unprecedented step this month of ordering thousands of unpaid IRS workers back to the office, saying that processing refunds was an “essential” government function even if the workers weren’t paid.
As much as 75 percent of the roughly 4,000 furloughed IRS employees in Kansas City could qualify for hardship leave, said Christina Bennett, executive vice president of the local National Treasury Employees Union chapter.
"Right now, they're being lenient," Bennett said.
Employees who process tax refunds, she said, are among the lowest-paid IRS workers. Some are worried about losing their cars.
Bennett, 63, who has worked nearly four decades at the IRS, most recently as an accountant, said she, too, can no longer fund her commute. She plans to request hardship leave if the government calls her back to work.
"I just don't have it," she said. "I'd have to walk a half-hour to get to a bus stop. And it's so cold. We've got rain, snow, rain, snow."
Sakeya Cooks, 24, another IRS worker who guides taxpayers through the refund process, said she might never report back to work. She already has applied for a new job at a Kansas City bank.
"How am I supposed to live like this?" she said. "I'm worried about losing my apartment."
John Koskinen, a former IRS commissioner, said federal employees are dedicated to the IRS mission but might be reaching their breaking point.
"As you put more and more pressure on the system, you increase the risk of a significant glitch," Koskinen said. "If I were the administration, I'd be troubled. The pressure is going to mount."
The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta and Mark Berman contributed to this report.