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IRS tax refund delays are so bad in 2021 that not even taxpayer advocates can keep up

The Taxpayer Advocate Service can’t do its job if the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t do its job, and right now, neither can do their jobs.

IRS tax refund delays are so bad in 2021 that not even taxpayer advocates can keep up
[Source photo: Ethan Rougon/Unsplash]
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You know things are dire when even your tax helpers are overtaxed.

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In a rare display of transparency this week, the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) outlined various logistical problems that have caused substantial delays for its team of advocates, who are tasked with helping taxpayers resolve issues with the Internal Revenue Service. Just as the IRS has been buried under an extreme backlog of unprocessed tax returns—leaving millions of Americans without their refunds and no word on the they’ll receive them—the TAS has been suffocating under the flood of taxpayers who have turned to the service for help.

“Our advocates have been handling unusually high levels of inventory for the last year,” writes Erin Collins, the national taxpayer advocate, in a blog post. “The past two filing seasons have been particularly difficult. On top of dealing with personal, medical, and financial challenges brought on by COVID-19, taxpayers have struggled to get advice and answers from the IRS, and millions of refunds are still pending.”

The office of the National Taxpayer Advocate serves as a kind of ombudsman, operating independently within the IRS and advocating for solutions to specific problems. In addition to fielding complaints about delayed refunds, the service also helps with identity verification, processing amended returns, or any number of issues that taxpayers may face.   

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But the TAS can’t actually “fix” problems itself, Collins writes. Rather, it can only work with IRS business units to advocate for certain solutions. In other words, the TAS can’t do its job if the IRS doesn’t do its job. And right now, both entities are too understaffed and overworked to do their jobs efficiently. According to Collins, taxpayers wait an average of 80 minutes when they call the TAS for help, and many encounter what she described as “courtesy disconnects,” meaning they get hung up on.

“Due to the high volume of calls and cases we have been receiving, we have struggled to meet our own deadlines and expectations,” Collins writes. “Our 79 local office telephone lines are receiving over 20,000 calls each week.”

The post goes on to list three main sources of the TAS’s problems:

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  • Increased workload: The office is expecting 253,000 cases this year, up from only 167,000 in 2017.
  • Not enough money: Adjusted for inflation, the budget to operate the TAS has fallen by 10% since 2017, the post estimates. As a result, staff levels have dropped by about the same amount, despite the increased workload.
  • IRS logjams: Put simply, because the IRS is taking longer to fix things, TAS advocates are having to spend more time on each case. Multiply that by 253,000, and you see the problem.

Not surprisingly, Collins recommends that Congress provide better funding to the IRS, which would both improve the agency’s efficiency and allow for adequate staffing levels at the TAS, all for the sake of helping taxpayers who “face immediate financial hardship or fall through the cracks of IRS bureaucracy.”

You can check out the full blog post here.

About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior staff news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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