The day of dread at any workplace arrived for the 1,800 workers at Covington’s IRS Submission Processing Center on Sept. 14, 2016.
That was the day the IRS announced that it would be closing the doors on the sprawling facility along Covington’s riverfront, also known by many as the Flat Top building, which opened in 1968.
“Certainly there was much wailing and gnashing of the teeth that day,” recalls Debbie Mullikin, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 73, which represents 2,800 federal workers across parts of Northern Kentucky. “I mean, my stomach dropped, and it turned out I wasn’t impacted.”
While the news was never going to be good, much of the potential harm has been mitigated in the two-and-a-half years since the announcement as a result of a collaborative effort that moved in multiple directions. As a result, with the center set to cease operations on Sept. 28, the number of permanent employees who could lose their positions as of right now is fewer than 200, Mullikin estimates.
That’s a far cry from the 1,826 jobs that were initially projected to be lost.
“Over the course of the last three years, a lot of people have either retired, taken buyouts, gotten other jobs with the IRS and a few folks have gotten other jobs at other places,” Mullikin says. “It’s not as impactful as it could have been, but of course, we’d like to see the rest of our folks find an opportunity, too.”
With 50 years of history and a working staff often close to 2,000 employees, it’s almost incalculable how many tax returns have been processed through the center. It has also had a huge impact on many surrounding communities whose residents were able to turn to the center for reliable jobs with solid pay.
Working at the center became part of the fabric of many lives across Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, linking family and friends together. For many of those people, the acceleration of people moving into new positions or leaving has created a sense of something lost.
Mullikin is a technical analyst in the IRS’s Innocent Spouse Operations section, the unit that handles appeals for relief after a married couple filed jointly but then one partner claims to be unfairly penalized because of the actions of the other partner. She came to the IRS 23 years ago, joining other family members who were working for the agency, including her mother.
Jennifer Smith, an Erlanger resident, has only been at the center for five years, but is probably part of the largest legacy family associated with the center. Over time, 33 members of her extended family have worked there, including both her parents. (It should be noted it’s not an automatic thing. Testing is involved for most positions, and Smith had to apply multiple times before finally landing a job as a tax examining technician.)
She says two things have been the toughest elements of the impending closure — uncertainty for those who have not yet found a position and then the loss of not seeing so many people that she’s developed friendships with, even beyond the family members she sees there.
“What makes it a great job is the people you work with,” Smith says. “I’ve developed so many friendships, on top of all the family members I do see, and those become lifetime friendships.”
Smith empathizes with those she sees at work who don’t yet know what the future holds. She herself was in the same position until February, when she found another position in a different department.
IRS positions have been brought into the area, according to Mullikin, through support from elected representatives, who have pushed the IRS to consider the region for jobs that are being created. IRS management has also worked with the union to host job fairs where outside companies have come in to talk about opportunities.
Employees have also been supported in developing job market skills through efforts from organizations like Gateway Technical College, the Kentucky Career Center, and the IRS’s Human Capital Office.
Mullikin says it has been stressful, especially with the curveball of having the government shutdown thrown into the mix and adding further complications for employees. But she credits the steady reduction over time in the number of jobs that could be lost to the efforts of many, including IRS leadership.
“I began my career at this center and have worked here 22 of the 32 years I have been with the IRS,” says James L. Fish, the field director for the Covington facility. “I returned to Covington in 2017 and am very passionate about helping our employees continue their IRS careers. I consider this center my home.”
“Management has not at all acted like this didn’t matter,” Mullikin says. “It’s not been a situation where managers say, ‘We’re shutting it down and we don’t care.’ They’ve been with us all the way through, helping us make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to the degree that they can.”