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Furloughed IRS Workers Vent in Andover: ‘We’re All Being Held Hostage’

January 12, 2019

ANDOVER -- After seven years working for the Internal Revenue Service, the ongoing government shutdown has left Ramesh Vyas visiting food pantries and churches in the hope that he may find someone willing to help his family.

Vyas, of Lowell, said his wife didn’t want him to resort to asking for help, but with an eviction notice from his landlord already in hand, Vyas did what he had to do to support his wife and three teenage children.

Vyas held up that eviction notice for all to see as he spoke at a forum for furloughed IRS workers held by U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan at the Andover Medical Center Friday.

The workers are members of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 68, and work at the massive

IRS complex in Andover where a usual staff of about 2,000 has been reduced to about 20 since the shutdown began.

Brian Woods, of Methuen, is one of the few workers there who is still working, without pay, since he was deemed essential. He said that at last count there were 67 buckets containing about 3,700 forms each just piled up waiting for action.

Other workers warned Trahan that even once the shutdown ends, things may not go smoothly since the workers have been unable to get training on new laws and regulations that will impact this year’s tax season and refunds.

The workers told Trahan of their struggles since they were told to stop reporting to work, and of how they can’t even get unemployment benefits since they’ve been told no one is available to verify their wages for the unemployment office.

“This is unacceptable,” said a woman who recounted her frustration. She noted that some of her colleagues may even be called back to work to help process tax refund checks even as they don’t get paid for the work.

“That is the biggest slap in the face,” she said.

Trahan, who took notes throughout the meeting, part of which was open to the press, said her staffers are already working on unemployment issues to help furloughed workers get benefits.

She had no such reassuring answers when pressed on whether there is any news out of Washington about a possible end to the standoff between President Donald Trump and Congress.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills come February 1,” said Mike McDonald, of Methuen, who has worked for the IRS for 11 years.

McDonald noted that the IRS workers who are deemed essential even have to pay for gas to get to work despite having no source of income during the shutdown.

“Not all of us can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps with a million-dollar loan like the president,” he said.

A woman who gave her name only as Cindy said she spent the last few months dealing with the fallout from the gas explosions in the area before she was told to stop reporting to work.

“We’re all being held hostage right now,” said Cindy, who believes the rights of government employees are being violated by the shutdown, and who suggested criminal or civil legal action.

Cindy, who works as a manager for the IRS, also scoffed at suggestions she’s seen that furloughed government employees don’t work as hard as their counterparts in the private sector.

Cindy said she worked for a private sector company for years before joining the IRS, and said she never worked nearly as hard in the private sector as she has for the IRS, where staff and funding cutbacks have increased workloads even as resources stagnate.

Workers from Dracut, Leominster, Tewksbury and Fitchburg were also among the group, as was a man who identified himself as a disabled veteran who has been left to get treatment for his diabetes even as his source of income is gone. He said he is now trying to get himself back into the VA system.

That man told Trahan to also think about the stress employees like him face as they work despite constant threats of shutdowns, and now live and try to plan without any idea when the shutdown may end.

Trahan said she was a government employee in 1995 when the government was shut down.

“That was different because people were ashamed that it happened and it really felt like it would never happen again,” Trahan said.

Trahan said she agrees there needs to be a vigorous debate about border security, but that Congress and the president must also stop playing games with the lives of Americans who happen to be government employees.

“We need to end this practice of tying government shutdowns to policy debates,” she said.

Trahan noted the “billions” in damage the shutdown is doing to the economy, and the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and other workers who continue to try to keep the country safe even as they’re not being paid.

She said she recently met with air traffic controllers as well, and said several of them broke down in tears as they spoke of their regret at having spent to give their children a good Christmas, only to be furloughed afterward.

Trahan said she isn’t scheduled to get her first paycheck as a congresswoman until February, but that she has already arranged to forego that check until all workers are back on the job.

“I won’t until you do,” she said when asked if she is still getting paid.

Melissa Sorcinelli, of Salem, N.H., asked Trahan to tell her colleagues that this is not the time to get on a soapbox and take a stand on a single issue. She asked Trahan and all legislators to sit down to iron out a compromise for the sake of those whose lives are tied up in the shutdown.

Sorcinelli said most great things in America have come about as the result of people with disagreements sitting down and reaching consensus.

Sorcinelli said she only recently started her job at the IRS, and that even though her family lives paycheck to paycheck, she is far luckier than some of her colleagues because her husband works elsewhere, meaning her family at least has one other source of income.

“I just want to pay my bills,” said Lisa Hilerio, of Barre. “I have five kids.”

Follow Robert Mills on Twitter @Robert_Mills.

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