IRS answered only 3% of calls on hotline during past tax-filing season, report says

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The IRS answered only 3% of the 85 million calls to its toll-free number for questions about individual tax returns and stimulus checks during the past tax-filing season, the agency’s independent watchdog wrote in an annual report to Congress.

With two rounds of federal stimulus checks fueling inquiries, National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins said the IRS at one point was getting 1,500 calls per second on various lines, the vast majority of which were not answered by a human being.

“In my view, phone assistance is not merely an option or a luxury,” she wrote on Wednesday. “The ability to talk with an IRS employee by phone to facilitate tax compliance is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of good tax administration.”

The record 167 million calls to the IRS largely involved questions about stimulus checks, and created the agency’s busiest period ever, she wrote.

In the 2019 tax season, the IRS answered 29% of the 100 million telephone calls it got.

But Ms. Collins also blamed Congress for the agency’s declining performance.

Before the pandemic hit last year, lawmakers funded only enough customer-service representatives for the IRS to be able to answer 60% of its calls from taxpayers in a normal year.

“I believe that percentage, even in a good year, is unacceptable,” Ms. Collins wrote. She recommended that the IRS find ways to become more efficient in fielding calls and for Congress to provide enough money for customer service representatives to answer all calls from taxpayers.

The IRS was also swamped by tax returns it must process manually, including those with a discrepancy between the amount of stimulus a taxpayer reported and the amount they were eligible to receive, the report said.

 As a result, IRS had a backlog of 35 million tax returns from individuals and businesses they still hadn’t processed at the end of tax filing season in May, four times as much as in 2019. 

The IRS disputed that number, saying about half were those being processed in the normal course of time and should not be counted as a backlog.

Still, Ms. Collins predicted delays for many in receiving their tax refunds.

“For taxpayers who can afford to wait, the best advice is to be patient and give the IRS time to work through its processing backlog,” Ms. Collins wrote. “But particularly for low-income taxpayers and small businesses operating on the margin, refund delays can impose significant financial hardships. Not everyone can afford to be patient.”

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