Despite the IRS “ordering” over 10,000 employees back into IRS offices a couple weeks ago, it appears many IRS employees have respectfully declined to follow this IRS directive. Recall on April 27, the IRS ordered its “mission critical” employees back into the IRS offices. This request for employees to return to the IRS offices came only about a month after the IRS ordered most of its employees out of the IRS offices. In late March, the IRS, which employs around 75,000 people across the country, sent many workers home as a precaution against the spread of Coronavirus. Around 44,000 started working from home, with around 30,000 or so continuing to be paid but not working. And then on April 27th, the IRS “ordered” around 10,000 employees (presumably amongst the group not already effectively working from home) to go back into the IRS offices, however a closer look at that “order” reveals the IRS merely requested the employees to go back to work in various IRS offices, and tried to tantalize them back into the offices with incentive pay. Not surprisingly, the offer of a little extra incentive pay does not appear to have done the trick, and apparently many IRS employees declined this order/request. Of course it didn’t help that the IRS did not even have face masks (at all its offices…it did have them at some) to give to its employees for their safety in this terrible time of Coronavirus.
Now over two weeks after the April 27 “order”, it appears that the IRS still needs many more “volunteers” to return to work in their IRS offices. It’s unclear if the IRS is offering extra incentive pay (above what they offered in the first go-around, which was reported to be a bump of between 10% to 25% of base salary for the near-term) to further entice the employees who have decided not to return. But my guess is even extra incentive pay is unlikely to do the trick for many IRS employees. IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig told congressional staff late last month that 100 IRS employees had contracted Coronavirus, and four had died. Would an IRS employee (or anyone for that matter) really want to go back into a cramped IRS office when they were already being paid their full salary (and in many cases not actually being required to work for their full salary) during the Coronavirus pandemic? Compliments to them if they do, but I doubt many are retuning (even with incentive pay). The IRS is probably going to have to order them back into their offices (a real order, not a request) in order to complete all the tax refund work in 2020, and such an order may not be easy to issue or enforce.
Our work at DIRECTS focuses exclusively on foreign sellers of US real estate and their tax refunds from 2019 (or earlier) sales of US real estate, or withholding certificate applications for 2020 sales, or procuring ITIN’s (Individual Taxpayer ID Numbers) for the foreign sellers. Although we assist foreign investors selling real estate throughout the entire United States, the majority of the foreign sellers we assist are selling US real estate in California (for example Los Angeles, San Gabriel Valley, Orange County and the Palm Springs area are big hotspots for foreign investment in real estate). We rely heavily on two IRS offices (in particular) to function at high efficiency. The most important IRS office for FIRPTA (foreign seller tax) work is the IRS office located in Ogden, Utah, where the IRS’ “FIRPTA Unit” is located. This is the office that reviews our withholding certificate (8288-B) applications. The other office we rely heavily upon is the IRS office in Austin, Texas, where the IRS processes both ITIN requests and tax return/ withholding tax refund requests. Both offices appear to be having significant challenges in terms of bringing back employees into the IRS offices, largely because of local conditions and/or local stay-at-home ordinances. You can see the challenge for the IRS higher officials looking to get the refunds back on track- how can we order our employees back in the offices when local stay-at-home orders (see for example the May 8th Austin, Texas stay-at home order, which was extended despite the State of Texas lifting its stay-at-home order on May 1st) are keeping the general population at home for safety reasons?
Foreign investors of US real estate looking for a refund of the heavy 15% withholding tax must submit paper (not electronic) tax returns in order to receive their large refunds. I firmly believe processing these tax returns/ refund requests can only take place in IRS offices, not in the homes of IRS employees (for a variety of reasons…see my earlier blogs on this topic). This whole thing remains a mess…not sure I see an end at sight (yet).
Michael W. Brooks, Esq.