ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
IRS employees are among the first federal government workers to return to the office after lockdown. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the government extended the deadline for filing tax returns until July 15. And returning workers are finding that stacks of mail are waiting for them. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's a busy time for workers at the Internal Revenue Service. They're still distributing coronavirus relief checks to millions of Americans and are now turning their attention to income tax returns. Much of the work is automated, but a lot of folks still mail in their returns, and it's been stacking up.
NINA OLSON: I think that the IRS is incredibly behind.
NAYLOR: Nina Olson is a former national taxpayer advocate who now directs the Center for Taxpayer Rights.
OLSON: The overflow has been so great that the IRS had to rent tractor trailers and even some storage - separate storage to just store the documents until the employees could come back and work through them.
NAYLOR: At the IRS facility in Covington, Ky., outside Cincinnati, about 100 workers have been called back to the office, many to work in the mailroom. Debbie Mullikin is an IRS employee who heads the local chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents many IRS workers. She says IRS management at the facility has been cautious.
DEBBIE MULLIKIN: They are spacing everyone out, so they haven't called everyone back. And they're spacing them out - for instance, the day shift employees sit in desk one, three, five and seven and the night shift employees would then sit in two, four, six and eight.
NAYLOR: But Mullikin is glad IRS managers are proceeding with such caution.
MULLIKIN: I understand that, you know, the United States citizens have a right to expect us to do our jobs. I don't disagree with that at all. I'm just glad that management has seen fit to do it in a fashion that is safe for the employees. No one wants to die to make sure somebody's tax return is accurate.
NAYLOR: Tony Reardon, the national president of the union, says so far things have gone smoothly for those workers who have been called back. But he says there are worries about coming back too early.
TONY REARDON: They've got to be concerned with things like, you know, is it safe to take the city bus? Is it safe to take the train? What are we doing about our children? Because they're not in school and, oh, by the way, we don't have summer camps for them to go to.
NAYLOR: Nina Olson of the Center for Taxpayer Rights says it's time to rethink the role of the IRS. Long underfunded by Congress and saddled with an antique computer system, she says the agency administers the nation's largest anti-poverty program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as distributing stimulus checks.
OLSON: Why its employees weren't designated as essential workers just like, you know, health care workers - they are essential workers for the health of the economy.
NAYLOR: She predicts it will be a year and a half before the agency catches up with its backlog of work, which could lead to some delayed refund checks for taxpayers.
Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.