An Emotional Audit: IRS Workers Are Miserable and Overwhelmed
Paying taxes to the IRS is no fun. Neither is working there
April 8, 2015
by Devin Leonard, Richard Rubin
They start lining up before 7 a.m. An hour and a half later, more than 60 people are waiting to get into the Internal Revenue Service’s Taxpayer Assistance Center in Philadelphia, across the street from the Liberty Bell. Young men in parkas and Phillies caps lean sullenly against the wall. Older couples camp on the hard marble floor with their forms in their laps. Some have haunted the lobby for several days, waiting to see someone like Candace Gaddy.
Inside the service center, Gaddy, an IRS taxpayer assistance specialist, sits stoically in a beige cubicle marked by an electric sign with a red numeral 5. She has long, dark hair and wears a white turtleneck, black vest, black jeans, and black boots. She’s neatly arranged stacks of tax forms on her table in front of her. The speakers of her Hewlett-Packard computer softly emit the Jay Z song 99 Problems. She’ll hear quite a few from taxpayers today.
A 16-year IRS veteran, Gaddy wishes she could share some of her own IRS troubles with her visitors. Her salary has risen only 2 percent in the last four years. The center lost its secretary and hasn’t replaced her because of a four-year-old hiring freeze throughout the agency, which means Gaddy and the remaining employees handle clerical duties, too. One of her fellow specialists spends all his time now answering questions via webcam from taxpayers in Harrisburg, Pa., because that office is short-staffed. Last year, to reduce the lines, the IRS discontinued its practice of preparing simple tax returns as a courtesy for people, many of them elderly. But in Philadelphia the queues have stayed the same or grown longer, because so many people come in with questions about tax credits for Obamacare and what to do to prevent identity thieves from stealing their refunds. (Because the refunds come on ATM-ready debit cards, thieves like to file victims’ returns ahead of time, with a different address.) “I mean, we still had lines,” Gaddy says, “but not out the door and around the corner.”
The IRS has never been an easy place to work. Its 84,000 employees, 65 percent of them women, generally don’t tell people outside the service where they draw a paycheck. It’s no way to make friends. They toil in purposely anonymous buildings—a big sign outside might attract crazies. In 2010 an antigovernment zealot flew a single-engine plane into a building in Austin, Texas, where 190 agency employees worked, killing one of them. “Well, Mr. Big Brother I.R.S. man, let’s try something different, take my pound of flesh and sleep well,” the pilot, Joseph Stack III, wrote in a six-page suicide note.
More recently, the IRS has become a casualty of the budget battles between the Obama White House and House Republicans. Since the GOP won control of the chamber in 2010, the agency’s annual budget has fallen by $1.2 billion, to $10.9 billion in 2015. Meanwhile, the agency has lost 11 percent of its employees. Last year it started 19 percent fewer criminal investigations than 2013. This year alone, it expects to close at least 46,000 fewer audits. Nobody likes being scrutinized by the IRS, but audits are a key component of the tax system that keeps the U.S. afloat. “It’s core to the country,” says Jeffery Trinca, a former Senate aide turned lobbyist who specializes in tax policy.
The agency’s customer service operation has been hobbled, too. In late March, the IRS said fewer than 40 percent of the people who call during this tax season will get through to someone. A decade ago, the figure was 83 percent. The agency is so short on funds that some employees purchase their own office supplies, even though the IRS says they shouldn’t. “I buy my own pens,” says Catherine Ficco, a revenue officer in West Nyack, N.Y. “I buy my own clips and hole punchers and things of that nature. It’s not uncommon. There’s no money to order supplies or paper for my printer.”
The IRS has long been disliked, but its employees aren’t used to being vilified. In May 2013 the agency disclosed that it had given extra scrutiny to Tea Party groups that were seeking nonprofit status. To Democrats, the decision to group together Tea Party applications and other politically oriented groups was merely a misguided attempt to find a consistent rule after years of muddled policy. “There were some boneheaded decisions,” President Obama told Fox News. To Republicans, the IRS’s hard look at Tea Party groups proved the service has a political bias. Since then the IRS has been consumed with scandals large and small: an expensively produced internal video that featured top executives dressed as Star Trekcharacters; a lavish conference funded with enforcement money where officials slept in presidential suites, albeit discounted ones; and the rehiring of employees accused of misconduct, including some who hadn’t filed their own taxes.
With a presidential election next year, Republicans seem determined to keep the scandals percolating. Texas Senator Ted Cruz may have set the tone in March, announcing his candidacy with a promise to abolish the IRS. He says its agents won’t be needed after he throws out the current tax structure and replaces it with a simple flat tax, enabling Americans to fill out their returns on postcards. Cruz wants them reassigned to border patrol duty.
In May 2013, Obama ousted Steven Miller, the acting IRS commissioner, and shortly after named John Koskinen, a former corporate takeover expert, as his replacement. Koskinen has two challenges: restoring the public’s confidence in the service and keeping employees from giving up hope. It may be too late for the latter. IRS veterans say it’s fine for Republicans and Democrats to disagree about the level of taxation in America, but they can’t do their jobs without functional computers and sufficient supplies. “I still get calls from people that worked for me who talk about the overload they are facing and what’s happening to them,” says Dorothy Taylor, a former IRS territory manager who was based in Plantation, Fla., before retiring in December 2013. “I try to reassure them that there have always been ups and downs in the organization. I tell them to just keep their heads down and do their job, and hopefully the IRS will pull through like it has in the past. But my concern is, will it?”
People who’ve spent their careers at the IRS all say the same thing: The pay wasn’t fantastic, but the health care and pension benefits were. And they went to the office each morning with a sense of purpose. Without their efforts, they knew, the federal government would stop working.
Whether they worked in Manhattan or Peoria, IRS veterans talk about something else that kept them at the service: the feeling of camaraderie. It was nice that they appreciated one another, because nobody else did. “You go to a party, and if you say you are from the IRS, half the people move into the other room,” says Richard Schickel, a former senior collections officer in Tucson who retired in December 2013. “After a while, your wife and relatives get tired of listening to your stories. They say, ‘How could you take those people’s houses and their businesses?’ The only place you get understanding is with other IRS people.”
When Schickel was hired in 1981, the IRS was decentralized. The 33 districts throughout the country each had their own criminal investigation, collection, audit, and customer service departments. Every district was like an extended family. Employees knew one another. They played softball together. They went on social outings. “Most of them were just decent people,” Schickel says of his former co-workers. He’s still friends with many of them.
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