Frustrated taxpayers are calling with questions about last year's tax returns, tax refund, stimulus checks and tax credits, among other issues, but are having trouble getting through: National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins, the agency's in-house watchdog, estimated recently that only about one out of 11 calls to the IRS was being answered.
One reason for the delays? The IRS is struggling to hire workers to man its phone lines.
The agency planned to hire 5,000 customer service representatives to man its phone lines but encountered "significant hiring challenges during the pandemic," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said Tuesday while testifying before the Senate Finance Committee.
Despite stubbornly high unemployment – the jobless rate fell to 6% in March, but there are still 8.4 million fewer jobs than before the crisis began – the IRS faced difficulties in onboarding new employees, including low applicant pools in some locations, delays in fingerprinting due to closed facilities and delays in processing applicants virtually.
Rettig said the agency hired about 3,800 customer service representatives; while it marks the largest-ever hiring of phone workers for a filing season, it was well below the agency's 5,000 goal. In total, the IRS has about 13,760 employees working in customer service. It intends to hire another 1,000 to help process the one-year expansion of the child tax credit included in President Biden's coronavirus relief package and deal with an expected increase in calls.
Because of the hiring problems, the agency is estimating its level of service will be "significantly less than where we want to be," Rettig testified.
"This is going to be a really tough year for the IRS and a very tough year for taxpayers with respect to telephones," Collins told Politico.
By April 2, the agency had already received about 21.4 million taxpayer calls, Rettig said. About one-third, or 6.94 million, were handled by customer service representatives, while the rest went to lines providing automated messages.
"There was no way to predict the pandemic and the impact it would have on our call volume, filing season, and hiring," Rettig said. "We are still working through the impacts of COVID-19, which created staffing shortages and closures, and we have been experiencing a much higher-than-expected call volume, coupled with an increase in call handling time caused by greater call complexity due to three rounds of EIPs and other tax law changes."
In March, the IRS delayed the main April 15 tax-filing deadline until May 17, giving most Americans more time to prepare their filings this tax season amid a slew of pandemic-related policy changes. It also postponed the deadline for people to contribute to their individual retirement accounts and health savings accounts until May 17.