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Federal agencies are still dealing with pandemic delays.

A shutdown could make delays worse.

The threat of a partial government shutdown this week comes as several federal agencies are still struggling to get out of pandemic delays.

The Internal Revenue Service is struggling to serve taxpayers 18 months after the pandemic sidelined thousands of employees. About half a million immigrants are on a State Department list to schedule interviews for their visa applications, and the wait for a passport is now up to 16 weeks. Thousands of documents for Social Security benefits went unprocessed this summer at field offices where in-person service has been suspended since March 2020, the agency's watchdog recently discovered.

A shutdown would magnify these delays and further weaken services that the pandemic has hampered, while many federal offices have remained closed or with limited operations during the public health crisis, federal government employees and experts said Tuesday, even if the shutdown it was brief.

The Biden administration says it would ensure that if government funding expired at midnight Thursday, federal employees involved in the pandemic response would remain on the job.

But a shutdown would leave hundreds of thousands of workers without permission, potentially far more than during the record but partial 35-day shutdown during the Trump administration in late 2018 and 2019. And some day-to-day services would already be paralyzed at agencies. struggling to stay afloat.

"He's burning the house in the middle of a blizzard," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Association for Public Service, which is not partisan. "It's going to make the difficult even more difficult."

The IRS contingency plan, for example, would call in roughly 32,000 of the agency's 82,000 employees to perform "essential" functions including computer operations, mail processing, and building and data security.

But tax audits, collection activity, customer service hotlines, tax return processing and other operations would cease. The IRS is already months behind on tax refunds, audits, and other services that were delayed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as miles of employees were sent home to work and unable to answer phones or access confidential data from employees. taxpayers.

Even now, a notice on the agency's website warns taxpayers that while "open and processing mail, we are tax returns, payments, refunds and correspondence," the pandemic "continues to cause delays in some of our services."

The list of delays includes live phone support, paper tax return processing, response to taxpayers' mail, and tax return reviews, including electronic ones. That's a big part of the IRS's primary mission.

"IRS employees have made great progress in clearing the backlogs that developed at the beginning of the pandemic, even as they achieved successful filing seasons and handled the increased workload of managing various financial aid programs," Tony Reardon , national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement.

He called any unpaid leave during a shutdown "a setback in that progress."

Federal agencies are still updating their contingency plans for a lapse in assignments, officials said, and any leave or requirement to stay on the job would also apply to employees who telecommute.

"We hope that Congress will work in a bipartisan manner to keep our government open, provide disaster assistance to Americans in need, and avoid catastrophic default, especially as we continue to confront the pandemic and drive an economic recovery," Abdullah Hasan a spokesman for the White House budget office said in a statement.

It's unclear how a shutdown could affect President Biden's vaccination mandate for federal workers, which is set for a Nov.22 deadline. Union managers and leaders across the government are still unsure whether suspended employees would get the four hours of leave to which they are entitled. Until they get the injections.

"They take these deadlines very seriously," said Jacqueline Simon, director of national policy for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers.

Simon blamed the agency's operations for the pandemic-related delays on staff cuts during the Trump administration, which sank many agencies when career staff resigned or retired and were not replaced.

"I don't know of an agency that failed to fulfill its mission" during the pandemic, he said.

However, the Department of Labor's internal watchdog found in a report released Tuesday that productivity in the federal workers' compensation program fell during the pandemic. Claims have slowed by 15 percent, the inspector general's office found, a decline driven in large part by a growth in Covid-19 claims taking longer to process.

While the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs has sped up the process in recent months, 46 percent of COVID-19 claims remained open to fines from March, the auditors.

Most of the office's staff would be suspended during a government shutdown, according to the Department of Labor's contingency plan.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration has been under pressure for months from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to return to serving the public in person after complaints from voters who do not have access to the Internet.

Unlike the IRS, the vast majority of the agency's workforce would be considered essential and would remain on the job during a shutdown, in accordance with contingency plans. But its nationwide network of 1,200 field offices, providing vital personal services to low-income disability applicants, would remain open only for "urgently needed" appointments. Claims for benefits and other front-line activities would continue during a shutdown, according to the agency's contingency plan.

"The agency makes a point of saying they're open to the public, but you still can't get into a field office," said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, an advocacy group.

The State Department's Office of Consular Affairs is outspoken about the pandemic-related service delays.

“We have taken several steps to address these challenges, including ensuring that all of our employees have access to vaccines, returning staff to our agencies, establishing overtime, temporarily assigning additional staff for passport adjudication, and hiring additional contractors to increase processing capacity across the country. "Said a spokeswoman.

The maximum wait time for "routine service" dropped from 18 weeks to 16 weeks last week, he wrote. He declined to comment on the effect of a closure of consular services.

"We cannot speculate at this time about the impact of a possible lag in assignments in consular services," he said in a statement.

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