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5 Ways the IRS Irks Taxpayers

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The Internal Revenue Service assists millions of taxpayers through its website, by telephone and via social media platforms as well as in person. 

The IRS closed its offices nationwide between March 20 and April 6, 2020, in response to the surging pandemic. As a result, most customer service assistance options were unavailable to taxpayers. And the pandemic compounds the challenges created by budget cuts in recent years.

These actions continue to negatively affect the IRS’ ability to provide quality customer service, the agency said in its “Interim Results of the 2021 Filing Season” report, issued in May. 

See the gallery for five customer service challenges that raise the hackles of taxpayers seeking assistance, and how the IRS is responding.

1. Where’s My Refund?

The IRS in a mid-March press release said income tax refunds may be delayed for several reasons, including the claiming of the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit. It did not, however, explain why a taxpayer’s return on which the EITC or ACTC was claimed would require further review and manual processing. The agency advised taxpayers to check the status of their refunds by using the Where’s My Refund tool of IRS.gov or on the IRS2GO app on their smartphones.  

The IRS’ Taxpayer Advocate Service noted in an April blog post that this advice had limited utility because these tools tell taxpayers that their return is being processed, but gives no details as to whether they need to provide more information or when the refund will be released.

2. Economic Impact Payment Inquiries — Listen to the Message

The IRS created a new toll-free EIP line on May 18, 2020. All calls start with an automated message and, if needed, are directed to a contractor, as the IRS doesn’t take direct EIP calls from the public. As of March 20, the EIP telephone line had received 48 million calls. Of those, nearly 26 million were abandoned by the taxpayer before moving into the contractor assistor’s queue, either because the caller’s issue was satisfied by the information provided in the automated messages or because the taxpayer got frustrated and hung up. The remaining nearly 22.1 million calls were added to the contractor’s queue.

The IRS extended the current vendor contract through May 12, 2021, and was working to procure a new live service contract effective May 13 to prevent an interruption in service.

3. Toll-Free Telephone Assistance — Hold, Please

As of March 5, taxpayers made nearly 46 million total and 31 million attempts during business hours to contact the IRS by calling various customer service toll-free telephone lines. The IRS reports that nearly 7.6 million calls were answered with automation, and telephone assistors answered more than 4.4 million calls and provided a 27.3% level of service with an 18-minute average speed of answer. This was considerably worse than in 2020, when assistors answered 4.8 million calls and provided a 68.2% level of service with a 10-minute average speed answer.

IRS management increased its fiscal 2021 hiring goal for the Accounts Management function from 3,579 new employees to 5,000 new employees — 4,000 of whom would be trained to answer toll-free telephone calls. As of Jan. 19, the IRS had hired 2,935 new employees to answer toll-free calls.

4. Walk-In Offices Closed Until Further Notice

Each year, millions of taxpayers nationwide seek assistance from one of the IRS’s 358 walk-in offices, called TACs. The IRS closed all of its TAC offices in response to the pandemic. As of March 8, the agency had yet to reopen 72 of the offices and 17 were understaffed, leaving affected taxpayers to resolve their questions from the information on the IRS website or by contacting a tax preparer. 

The IRS is actively working to increase staffing in the TAC, including through a special hiring program for veterans.

5. Volunteer Program — Stay Home, Stay Safe

The Volunteer Program provides no-cost tax return preparation and e-filing to underserved taxpayer segments, including low-income, elderly, disabled, rural, limited-English-proficient and Native American taxpayers. But as of March 7, the number of returns prepared was down by 67%, a drop to 565,000 returns from 1.7 million as of March 8, 2020.

The IRS explained that many of the volunteer sites are not operating at full capacity and others remain closed.