IRS workers and others rally in Fresno last week to call for an end to the government shutdown. Photo by Frank Lopez

published on January 17, 2019 - 1:47 PM
Written by Gabriel Dillard

Hundreds of IRS employees in the Fresno area were called back to the job today to work without pay during the partial government shutdown.

They join about 46,000 employees –nearly 60 percent of the national IRS workforce –returning to work to handle tax returns and pay out refunds. They won’t be paid during the shutdown.

There are about 6,000 IRS employees in the Fresno area.

With the official start of the tax filing season coming Jan. 28, the Trump administration has promised that taxpayers owed refunds will be paid on time, despite the disruption in government services caused by the partial shutdown now in its fourth week.

There had been growing concern that the shutdown would delay refunds worth hundreds of billions of dollars because the money wouldn’t be available for them from Congress. But last week, the administration said customary shutdown policies will be reversed to make the money available to pay refunds on time.

Jason Sisk, an IRS employee in Fresno and president of the National Treasury Employees Union local chapter, said returning to work is a hardship for many of them as they still have to pay for gas to get to and from work. And some are having their car insurance coverage cancelled due to not being able to pay their bills.

“Which means now they’ll have to drive illegally unless they can get approved under a hardship request to remain on the non essential list,” Sisk said.

Local IRS workers held a rally last week in Fresno calling for an end to the shutdown.

Angered over employees having to work without pay, the National Treasury Employee Union representing IRS staff sued in federal court last week to challenge any such agency action on constitutional grounds. The Constitution doesn’t allow the government to obligate funds that haven’t been provided by Congress, and the executive branch “can’t continue to force more and more employees to show up in exchange only for an IOU,” the union said.

On Tuesday, a federal judge rejected the union’s challenge, declining to force the government to pay the recalled employees.

Some experts question whether the administration has the legal authority to reverse earlier policies to allow the government to issue tax refunds during a shutdown.

In 2011, the chief counsel at the IRS concluded that such payments were legally allowed during a shutdown. At the time, the White House Office of Management and Budget, under President Barack Obama, rejected that position and directed the IRS not to pay refunds during a shutdown. But the IRS said last week that OMB had reviewed the issue at the Treasury’s Department’s request and now agrees with the IRS counsel’s position that refunds can legally be paid.

“As federal employees we are clearly being used as political pawns because now that the shutdown has dragged on so that refunds will be delayed, OMB has been told their stance has changed,” Sisk said “This is clearly only to alleviate the political pressure off those who can end the shutdown so the taxpayers won’t ring their phones off the hook.”

The issue is politically sensitive. The massive tax law enacted by Republicans in Congress in late 2017, which is President Donald Trump’s signature legislative achievement, gave generous tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest Americans and more modest reductions to middle- and low-income households. The law is expected to bring lower taxes for 2018 for the great majority of Americans, and the refunds are a big tangible part of that.

Tax filing season officially starts Jan. 28.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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