In the unpredictable economic environment created by COVID-19, Americans are anxiously awaiting their tax returns for a bit of financial relief. However, with enormous backlogs of paper piling up at IRS headquarters, many citizens may find themselves waiting longer than ever before.
“I think that the IRS is incredibly behind,” Nina Olson, a former national taxpayer advocate, shared with NPR in June. “The overflow has been so great that the IRS had to rent tractor-trailers and even some storage — separate storage — to just store the documents until the employees could come back and work through them.”
With the new tax deadline looming on July 15, what should Americans expect?
IRS Limiting Services and Assistance Amid COVID-19
The IRS is facing unprecedented challenges as it navigates a highly unusual and unprecedented tax season. First and foremost, the IRS was forced to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing its doors.
“To protect the public and employees, and in compliance with orders of local health authorities around the country, certain IRS services such as live assistance on telephones, processing paper tax returns and responding to correspondence are extremely limited or suspended until further notice,” the IRS announced on its website. “All Taxpayer Assistance Centers remain temporarily closed as are many volunteer tax preparation sites until further notice.
Even while coping with limited staffing and resources, the IRS has also been juggling the responsibility of delivering economic impact stimulus payments to more than 140 million people. As a result, the IRS announced, “we’re experiencing delays in processing paper tax returns due to limited staffing. If you already filed a paper return, we will process it in the order we received it.”
In-Office Changes Slow Down Essential Processes
Some IRS employees were allowed to return to the office in mid-June, but they haven’t been able to return to normal operating speeds quite yet.
“They are spacing everyone out,” explained Debbie Mullikin, an IRS employee. “For instance, the day-shift employees sit in desks one, three, five and seven. And the night-shift employees would then sit in two, four, six and eight.”
These precautions are important to keep employees safe, but may not help alleviate the backlog of work to be done.
“I understand that… the United States citizens have a right to expect us to do our jobs. I don’t disagree with that at all,” said Mullikin. I’m just glad that management has seen fit to do it in a fashion that is safe for the employees. No one wants to die to make sure somebody’s tax return is accurate.”
However, others predict it may take up to a year and a half before the agency finally catches up to its pre-pandemic workload. In order to alleviate these issues and help taxpayers receive answers as quickly as possible, the IRS is encouraging all users to seek help online at IRS.gov rather than calling, sending mail, or attempting to visit a local office.
“IRS.gov remains the best source for questions about tax law, checks on refund status, tax payments and Economic Impact Payments,” the agency says online.