The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

IRS workers beckoned to involuntary servitude

“They’re pissed. They’re beyond pissed."

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads "Don't Wall Feds Out" during a protest against the government shutdown in Boston on Jan. 11. (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg News)

The telephone call was quick and to the point.

Uncle Sam wants you back.

But the message summoning Internal Revenue Service employees from furlough to work said nothing about their missing pay or the inconvenience and the hardships his workers have suffered during the month-long partial government shutdown.

The calls on Wednesday to IRS workers beckoned them to involuntary servitude.

“You are being required to report to work on Thursday,” said a voice mail received by Denise, an IRS taxpayer contact representative. Fearing retaliation, she did not want to be fully identified.

An IRS statement said the agency “is starting the process to recall employees to help with filing season and several key areas. Some workers will report tomorrow (Friday), others will report in next week while other employees will come in at a later date as filing season activity increases.”

Denise is among the 800,000 federal employees not being paid. Now, an increasing number of them are being told they must work without pay.

“They’re pissed. They’re beyond pissed,” said Pamela Strum, a 20-year federal employee and National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) chapter president in St. Louis. “They are heartbroken. They’re scared to death.”

None of her members have received unemployment insurance payments, but some are getting food stamp cards, she said, “so at least our employees will be able to eat”

As tough as it is being laid off, at least that allows for some options — perhaps finding temporary employment. Working without pay is a twilight zone of uncertainty, of losing control over your life.

You can’t work elsewhere because Sam commands your time. You can’t strike because federal workers are not allowed to. You can’t stay home to save money. You have costs associated with work, such as day-care and transportation expenses, but no income to cover them.

Denise, a single mother, said she is unable to go back to work because it would be a financial hardship.

I haven’t had any income, so I have no gas money,” she said. “And we also have to pay to park, so I have no parking money.”

Denise has asked creditors to accept delayed payments and family members for loans. She buys food at dollar stores and is “basically not eating like normal, you know, trying to make my food last.”

Especially sad for a parent, she had to tell her son “not to eat too much . . . only get a snack if you really, really are hungry.”

Through tears: “It’s frustrating and it’s just … a lot to deal with.”

Another point of concern, her claim of financial hardship must be approved by her agency. If it isn’t approved, she could lose back pay. There is a hardship clause in the union contract, Strum said, but she expects to “fight each and every one of those cases when I get back if management tries to do anything to those people.”

National NTEU President Tony Reardon said he’s “worried that highly trained IRS employees will consider quitting so they can get a job that actually comes with a paycheck.”

The IRS staffers called workers back for the tax filing season. But before they can begin helping taxpayers, the employees need additional training that the shutdown has delayed.

None of us have been trained for this new tax season,” Strum said. “All these changes that President Trump made to the tax laws and everything, none of us have been trained. So, I don’t know how they think they’re going to pull this off and get the tax season rolling on time when nobody knows what the hell they are doing.”

All of this led Denise to consider quitting.

“I feel stress. I feel frustrated. I feel fear,” she said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re at a loss when you don’t have control of the situation. Basically, all I can do is pray, and trust God because there’s nothing more that I can do.”

More than anger, Denise feels “distraught that something like this can go on for so long, and no one really, actually is doing something about it.”

Read more:

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