Political Notebook

As IRS workers suffer during shutdown, your tax returns could be delayed

IRS employees rally against government shutdown in Fresno

IRS employees, some working without pay, rally outside the Fresno processing center protesting the government shutdown Thursday morning , Jan 10, 2019
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IRS employees, some working without pay, rally outside the Fresno processing center protesting the government shutdown Thursday morning , Jan 10, 2019

Thousands of federal workers in the Fresno area could receive eviction notices and struggle to feed their families in the near-future as they miss their first paycheck this week due to the partial government shutdown, and their work stoppage could soon impact millions of non-government workers as tax season approaches.

About 125 employees gathered outside the Internal Revenue Service’s processing center in southeast Fresno on Thursday. Some held signs depicting crossed-out chess pawns or reading “We want to work. We want to get paid. End the shutdown.”

B. Rodriguez stood near the front of the group holding a bright pink sign which noted that 800,000 American citizens are facing economic hardships due to the shutdown, which began on Dec. 22.

“I’m not going to be able to feed my grandchildren,” Rodriguez said. “I have no idea how I will pay next month’s rent.”

Rodriguez is raising three of her grandchildren – 6, 3 and 1 – and is the sole earner in her home. She has worked as a customer service representative at the downtown Fresno IRS office for eight years, and was due to be paid on Monday.

Many of Rodriguez’s fellow coworkers face similar problems in the coming weeks.

President Donald Trump told reporters that he would prefer to work with Congress on a deal to end the partial government shutdown and is open to compromise but will use his emergency powers to circumvent Congress if they can't come to agreement.

Priscilla Ortega, an IRS customer service representative for 11 years, is a single mother. Two of her adult children have helped her out, but she is the sole earner for a 14-year-old and a 2-year-old, who sat bundled up in a stroller by her side at the Thursday rally.

“Our benefits and other deduction payments will come out of our first paycheck after the shutdown, so who knows when we will see a full paycheck again,” Ortega said.

Ortega said she managed a decent Christmas, but it was a little lighter than in past years as she had already begun to save for the shutdown.

John Platz has worked as a correspondence examination technician with the IRS since 1984. Prior to that, he served in the Vietnam War as a member of the U.S. Army. His employee badge dangled across a T-shirt that read “Don’t Tread on Me,” with a veterans cap perched on his head.

“We need to get Congress and the president to act together,” Platz said. “You can’t blame any one person. But we have to get government working. If that means a wall, put up a wall.”

Platz said he took out a $3,000 loan from Golden One Credit Union to help him get through the shutdown. He qualifies for full retirement, but he wants to keep working.

He called himself “the most patriotic person you will ever meet.” He displays an American flag on his desk. His father was in the military before him, and he believes he can still serve his country through his work.

“We are doing justice for the American people when we help them with their taxes and questions,” Platz said. “I love this country and this government. It’s not perfect, as you can see, but it’s still the best one there is.”

Customer service representative Maria Diaz, bottom center, and tax examiner Kendra Salinas, bottom right, joined a crowd of about 125 IRS employees for a rally against the government shutdown outside the Fresno IRS Processing Center Thursday morning, Jan. 10, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Union perspective

Jason Sisk, an IRS customer service representative for more than 30 years, represents 5,200 Fresno-area federal workers as the local chapter president for the National Treasury Employees Union. Most of these employees, he said, were making $15-$20 an hour and living paycheck-to-paycheck. The union represents 30 different agencies, though most of its local members work at the Fresno IRS building.

“Some of them are going to get their eviction notices soon,” Sisk said. “Some of their landlords won’t work with them. They don’t care. They’ve got people on their waiting lists. They will kick people out and move others in.”

Approximately 125 IRS employees rallied against the government shutdown outside the Fresno Internal Revenue Service Processing Center Thursday morning, Jan. 10, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Banking overdraft fees and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. bills are due, Sisk added. The workers must still make their health care payments or face tax penalties. Many missed work during Christmas. Others are seasonal employees living off part-time wages as it is.

Employees who are working without pay do not qualify for unemployment benefits or hardship loans, Sisk said. Those who do qualify have had difficulty accessing their pay histories through understaffed federal agencies.

Some of these workers have reached out to their elected representatives for help.

The office of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, has received about 10 calls and 80 emails from federal workers impacted by the shutdown, communication director Claudia Larson said. The figures represent a large volume of feedback by office standards for any one particular issue.

Costa’s staff collected several testimonials detailing hardships faced since the shutdown:

  • A single father of two who was not sure he could make ends meet.

  • A group of federal workers mulling over taking out bank loans or finding other jobs to supplement their household income.
  • A mother of four whose husband was recently laid off from his construction job who is now on federal furlough.
  • Several downtown Fresno businesses that have cut operating hours due to a lack of business from federal workers.

Larson noted that Costa had supported several appropriation bills in the previous Congress that would have kept the government open, and he has since supported recent House funding legislation that has not been taken up by the Senate.

What about your tax returns?

The impacts on federal workers will soon be felt by ordinary citizens.

The agency released a statement Monday stressing that it will disburse tax return money regardless of the shutdown. It plans to recall furloughed workers at some point to begin processing returns on Jan. 28, which it said was a typical starting point in non-shutdown years. These workers would receive back pay once the government re-opens.

But Sisk disagreed, saying income tax returns may be impacted.

“President Trump said, ‘Tax returns will still be processed,’ but the largest site in the country is here in Fresno,” Sisk said. “And no one in that building is working on tax returns right now.”

The Fresno facility processes the returns of most Californians – millions in all, Sisk said. Other processing centers throughout the country held similar rallies on Thursday.

Sisk said the much-needed hiring process for additional processors for the tax season has also been suspended. Several employees are working without pay in the Fresno center, but they are collecting checks from the mail room and sending out tax notices – not processing individual returns. The longer the shutdown persists, the larger the backlog will be once employees return to work.

The IRS had planned to recall additional employees on Monday and classify them as essential, meaning they would be required to work for no pay and then given back pay once the government reopens. But the agency canceled the order on Saturday, saying it would wait until the U.S. Treasury Department approves a shutdown contingency plan for the 2019 tax season.

Some of the workers at Thursday’s rally said they may not return to the IRS if the shutdown does not end soon.

“I’m looking for another job,” Ortega said.

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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.