A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

As the government shutdown drags on, workers at the IRS Center in Covington struggle to stay afloat

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

In our nation’s capital, the government shutdown is about ideological differences over immigration, border security and spending.

At this time of year, the Internal Revenue Service Center in Covington should be bustling with activity, but the government shutdown is keeping all but those employees deemed as essential at home. As the shutdown heads into its third week many workers are already struggling to make ends meet, with no resolution in sight (photo by Mark Hansel).

For the workers at the Internal Revenue Service Center in Covington, it’s a bit more personal.

For them, the shutdown means paying for daycare to keep a child’s spot reserved, without a paycheck coming in. It means hoping creditors will understand the request to allow some latitude to pay bills until the shutdown is resolved.

It might also mean being called back to work without pay (some already have been), if they are designated as essential employees during the tax season.

Debbie Mullikin is the president of National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) 73, which represents the 2,873 workers in the bargaining unit at the Covington IRS facility.

 “Most of them are starting to get antsy and there’s the standard cabin fever,” Mullikin said. “You don’t want to go out and entertain or spend a lot of money if you don’t know when you’ll get paid next. They are doing those things that are inexpensive that you can do and not break the bank.”

Most are also avidly watching the news.

“We don’t have any inside track beyond that level,” Mullikin said.

Unlike non-government unions, which often have funds set aside for a work stoppage, such as a strike, the NTEU has no such reserves.

“Federal employees are not allowed to strike, so we don’t have one of those funds,” Mullikin said. “Really, shutdowns should be an anomaly, so the chapter and the national office are not financially prepared for that. There is not an income or account that we hold back from dues to help employees in this situation.”

Workers have been advised to file for unemployment in order to get some money coming in as soon as possible.

“We’ve got packets on how to file for unemployment and we’re telling them to go ahead and file if it becomes financially imperative that you do so,” she said. “We also tell them to be aware that if we do get back pay, you will have to pay (unemployment) back. What you have to do to get by today, you have to do.”

Employees in the bargaining unit range from mail clerks to people who conduct audits and in-depth financial analyses. The NTEU is encouraging those in its bargaining  unit to contact senators and congressmen to let them know the impact the shutdown, now in its 19th day, is having.

In an address to the nation Tuesday, President Donald Trump said the Federal  Government remains shut down because Democrats will not fund border security (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

“I’ve sent them myself and I keep getting responses that say our mailbox is full, so he’s not getting what I have to say,” Mullikin said.

Federal employees are prohibited from talking about the shutdown, according to Mullikin, who is also an IRS employee but is permitted to speak in her capacity as a union leader.

Despite the restrictions, a few employees agreed to discuss the impact the shutdown has had on them.

Not being able to work is a hardship in some way for almost all IRS employees, but some are better equipped financially to handle the shutdown than others.

Richard Burkard, who is not a member of the NTEU, started working at the IRS in March. Burkard, 60, has some money saved up and said if need be, he can dip into his retirement.

“It hasn’t affected me all that much,” Burkard said. “I have found other things to do other than sit at home, such as go on some day trips.”

He has limited his conversations on social media because he knows others are not as fortunate as he and he is sympathetic to their plight.

He is in Kansas City visiting family and knows even that is a bit of a risk. 

Federal employees are expected to be available to report to work within four hours of being recalled and it is a 10-hour drive from where he is now.

“I plan to head back Thursday,” he said. “We are all certainly stuck in the middle.”

For many IRS employees, the shutdown is a lot more than an inconvenience.

For a young single mother from Northern Kentucky, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ban, being off work is almost overwhelming.

“I have three kids, two in elementary and a four-year-old,” she said. “I have had to pull my kids out of daycare because I can’t afford it, not having an income. It’s been a huge financial struggle because we don’t know anything.”

She knows that by pulling the children out of daycare, she surrendered spots she may not get back.

“I chose not to keep my spot only because at my daycare, I would still have to make a payment every week and I don’t have it and I don’t know how long it is going to be,” she said. “Right now, I’m off work, so I can drive my two older kids to school.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said President Trump is rejecting bipartisan bills that would reopen the government in order to secure funding for a border wall (official photo).

She has worked at the IRS since 2014, so this is her first experience with an extended shutdown. 

“What am I supposed to do, because I have my kids and they depend on me and me alone? she said. “I have to pick and choose – can I afford to go to the store right now or go out to my mom’s if I need something because I don’t have money for gas?”

She has filed for unemployment, but while Burkard said his claim has been processed, she was told a decision has not yet been made on whether to process claims. It is all part of the uncertainty that accompanies a government shutdown.

Often in times of financial hardship, people lean on family members for support, but many in her family also work at the IRS.

“We’re all hurting,” she said.

She has contacted her creditors to let them know she is a government employee impacted by the shutdown and some have agreed to work with her.

Her cell phone provider, T-Mobile, sent out a notice indicating they would help Federal employees impacted by the shutdown by providing a flex payment plan.

Her landlord has not been as accommodating to this point.

“She said I was still responsible for my January rent, and I accept that, so I paid the rent out of the last paycheck we received,” she said. “Now, I don’t know when I’m going to get paid again, so what about February? I’m left facing that, too.”

She said she can’t help but feel like a pawn in a cruel, high-stakes game of partisan politics.

“I know it’s not directed toward me, but the number they say is 800,000 employees that are  being used as pawns to get them to negotiate,” she said. “I understand the larger sense of it is the funding because they have to have the funding to do everything they need to do. But I don’t believe the IRS has anything to do with border security.”

As the shutdown heads toward its third week, with no end in sight, frustration is becoming despair for the single mother. 

“This is my and my children’s livelihood,” she said. “This is our home, this is our bills, this is our life. I have never faced a situation like this beforehand it’s almost like I feel helpless because I’ve reached the point where I don’t know what to do.”

The people the Tribune spoke with are non-essential employees, so they have not worked since the shutdown began. Those deemed as essential employees are required to work without getting paid until the shutdown is over.

“For folks who are essential it’s heartbreaking,” Mullikin said. “They have to pay for gas, for daycare and be sure that kids are taken care of, with no money coming in. There is a large group of people with families to take care of and this kind of stuff is hard and the instability is difficult.”

The single mom has a family member who is an essential employee and she said it is even more of a struggle for her.

“She has small children and they are in daycare,” she said. “The difference between me and her is, I’m home with my children and not getting paid, she’s not home with her children and not getting paid.”

Mullikin said essential employees have fewer options.

“You can’t collect unemployment, because you are employed,” she said. “You can’t look for another job, which is a requirement for unemployment, because you are not available for work somewhere else.” 

Essential employees must get paid for the time they have worked when the shutdown comes to an end. Non-essential employees have traditionally gotten back pay for the time they were off work as well, but while most think it is posturing, there is talk of not doing that this time around.

Mullikin said the impact has spread beyond the IRS employees to the surrounding businesses.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said the solution is to separate the government shutdown from arguments over border security (provided photo).

“It’s difficult for the local vendors that count on us to come in and buy a cheeseburger, or whatever,” she said. “In addition to the nearly 3,000 bargaining-unit  workers there is probably another 1,500 non-bargaining-unit employees, so that’s almost 5,000 people not coming in and buying. The wait staff that are not even making minimum wage and are counting on tips have to be struggling.”

The Tribune reached out to some restaurant owners in the area who did not want to elaborate but confirmed that the shutdown is having a significant negative impact on their bottom line.

In an industry that often operates on slim margins in the best of times, even a small decline in business can be hard to overcome. A prolonged loss of revenue could be devastating for many.

For the IRS, the shutdown comes at a time when Americans are getting ready to file their taxes.

At this point, the IRS has said it will accept payments for people who owe money, but no refunds are being processed.

“Now they have lost days, and they are going to have a hard time catching up because we are moving into that uphill-battle time,” Mullikin said. “This is our time to get everything in place and organized so it is a smooth filing season and this year that’s not able to happen.”

It was expected to be challenging this year under the best of circumstances because of tax reform.

“It’s new to us  as well,” she said. “People needed to be trained, and prepared and a lot of that is not happening, or it is happening later than it should have because of the shutdown, so it’s going to impact filing season.”

Anyone planning to use a tax filing agency expecting to get a quick refund, she said, might be disappointed this year.

Left to right, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D, New York, appear to be no closer to a resolution of the government shutdown than when this photo was taken late last year (photo from video).

There was speculation that some IRS employees in Covington would be called back this week because it is tax season, but that did not happen.

Attempts by the Tribune to get a comment from the Internal Revenue Service regarding the shutdown were unsuccessful.

Calls to the local representatives either weren’t answered or were sent to voice mail with instructions to call the national office in Washington D.C. Calls to that office were also sent to voice mail. Instructions for reporters  on deadline to contact a media spokesperson received a message that the person’s mailbox “has not been set up.”

Those looking for positive signs from President Donald Trump’s address to the nation Tuesday night or the Democratic response, could not have been very encouraged.

Trump has already said he is prepared to let the shutdown go on for months, and even years, if he does not get funding to build a border wall. Nothing Tuesday suggested that stance has softened.

“The Federal government remains shut down for one reason, and one reason only, because Democrats will not fund border security,” Trump said.

In the response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, were adamant that they would not support funding for a border wall.

“The president is rejecting these bipartisan bills, which would reopen government, over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall,” Pelosi said.

For a single mom with three kids, it’s not about billions, it’s about tens and twenties.

“My kids will tell me they need something for school and I’m like, I can’t do that right now,” she said. “They are not budging and I see clearly they are not budging. It makes you feel like there is no end in sight.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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  1. The Man I saw last night was a man of wisdom who understands the uniqueness in social economic capitalistic system and free enterprise system but also realizes there is no conscience and government and Godly Principles must be present to restrain greed and perversions and corruption which are evil tools of the devil. President Donald Trump and Mike Pence are men for such a time as this.
    I agree with Donald Trump and Mike Pence and team members The Democrats care more about politics than they care about our protections.
    It is time for them to grow up and the media also. The people are not blind we see what is going on and the Democrats have one thing on their minds we could not defeat him at the election so let’s infiltrate the country with gangs and drugs and pornographic perversions and rapist attacks and scare the people to give up. It won’t work we the people stand behind our Country America and Godly Principles and love and prayers and you liars and demons and deceivers can follow the Socialist Democratic party down to Venezuela and live. We are Black, Yellow, Brown, Red & White American people and we want a Wall Fence Drones Glass metal slats whatever The President wants to call it Security and we want it now. Understand no open borders period. If they do not come legal then don’t come. Its is that simple. The President does have a super ego, that is not what I watched last night, it was a man who was under the influence of Godly Principles and truly committed to our and others security. Some people never grow with responsibility and then sometimes you see a complete transformation with some people who are under the Spirit of the Lord. Donald Trump and has been slowly accepting his nomination and election to the office of President of the United States of America and with the help of a Godly Principled Vice President Mike Pence and team members President Trump and his ego directed in a Godly Principles direction has come to Wisdom and love for all Americans and children of God. God does use people who we least expect to accomplish His will and not ours. Last night’s address was filled and presented with wisdom and anybody who did not see and hear that needs to examine their own heart. Thank you Mr. President for your obedience to God.

  2. Snap Tonneau says:

    Local citizens are always the affected ones on moves like this. The government should have more programs to support the workers being affected on shutdowns and layoffs.

  3. Tom M. says:

    It’s sad that supposedly God-fearing people support the bigoted, sexist, egotist at the top of our government, He’s running this country into the ground. Americans should not condone the serial liar and accused rapist who currently occupies the White House. He is tearing the country apart by lying about opponents, “friends,” the media and the need for a wall. What we need is the technology that already exists for border security. The man is truly heartless and likely violates each of the 10 Commandments on a regular basis.

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