With taxpayers filing electronic returns and the IRS direct depositing refunds into bank accounts, the tax season has never been shorter.

But this is no ordinary tax season.

The IRS stopped processing mailed communications this spring, sending workers home to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus. That created a huge backlog and delayed the processing of paper returns for 2019. To speed things along, the tax agency encouraged people to e-file. Electronic filing typically yields a refund check in about three weeks.

People who mailed their returns this year should expect delays in getting refunds, the IRS has been saying. But many folks who filed electronically say they, too, are still awaiting refunds.

Adam Hines is a certified public accountant, and for years, he managed his taxes so well that he says he either owed the IRS or got a refund of $10 or less. This year, Hines is expecting a refund of about $4,300, largely because he purchased a home at the end of 2019. His return needed review because of an uncommon deduction, Hines said.

“Both the City of Cincinnati and the State of Ohio sent me an inquiry on my taxes, to which I responded, and I received my refund from both for the original amount requested by the third week of March,” he said. “It’s been five months since I e-filed, and I’ve received nothing from the IRS. My return is five pages long. It is not a hard return. At some point, I think I have the right to speak to someone that can actually help get this facilitated and not hold up the refund.”

Others told similar stories: “We filed electronically on April 23 and still haven’t gotten our $3,000 refund," one reader wrote. "The IRS is impossible to reach. Weirdly enough, I did get my stimulus payment.”

Much of the delay is coronavirus-related. “We are making progress on the returns as our staffing levels increase,” said IRS spokesman Eric Smith.

I asked Smith to address some frequently asked questions about tax-refund delays.

Q: Why is there a backlog for electronically filed returns?

A: Tax returns, even those filed electronically, may need additional review for a number of reasons.

“Although e-filed returns tend to be much more accurate, there are things that can come up with them that also come up with paper returns,” Smith said. “A refund claim could appear excessive, for example, meaning it merits further review. There certainly could be refundable credit issues or even ID theft-related issues.”

If you haven’t done so already, check your refund status through Where’s My Refund? This tool is available at IRS.gov/refunds, or call 800-829-1954. If that doesn’t yield a good answer and it’s been 21 days since the return was accepted by the IRS, then call the general toll-free number 800-829-1040.

Under normal circumstances, it can take some time to get to a live IRS representative. It’s a maddening experience for many people. The phone lines are often busy. You will probably face a long wait or be steered to electronic messages that provide little insight into why your refund is delayed.

“I’d advise calling in the middle of the week, either very early in the morning or very late in the day, to minimize the wait time,” Smith said.

Q: I sent the IRS a fax with the information that was requested and I’m still waiting for my refund. Why?

A: “I e-filed my return in January,” one reader emailed. “In March, I got a message saying it’s being reviewed. I faxed what I was told to fax after talking on the phone with an IRS agent. Here we are, going into the month of August, and I still have not received my refund.”

Although faxing a response saves time, compared to mail, it’s still a paper process. "Unfortunately, it could still take a while,” Smith said.

Q: What should I do if I call the IRS or use the “Where’s My Refund?” tool and still can’t find out when my refund will be sent?

A: You may have to visit a Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC). But even that can be a frustrating endeavor.

“After going through the steps correctly, the only reply I got was, "We cannot provide any information,” one Colorado couple wrote. “We then tried to call the nearest IRS office to us. The Colorado Springs TAC was on the closed list. The Denver office showed as open. Unfortunately, it is closed.”

TACs are operated by appointment only. For a listing of open offices, visit irs.gov, and search for “appointment.” Look for your state, and then review the list to divine which TAC offices are open closest to you and what services are provided. Be aware that some offices listed as open may still be closed.

Q: I had an appointment to go in person to the IRS to verify my identity so I could receive my tax refund. But the appointment was canceled because of covid-19. I haven’t heard anything yet on the next step. What can I do now?

A: The number for scheduling or rescheduling a TAC appointment is 844-545-5640.

“If there is any possible way to resolve the matter over the phone, our representatives will try to do so,” Smith said. “Otherwise, we will set you up with an appointment.”

Q: If the IRS hasn’t processed my return, should I just send a copy of what I filed? What could happen if I mail or e-file again?

A: The big problem with filing the return again is that the IRS may freeze your account. Depending upon the circumstances, the IRS may be able to resolve the matter without contacting you. But other times, there may be a need for a follow-up, causing an even longer delay.

“The process of sorting out which return was first, and then determining whether the second one was just a duplicate versus an attempt at amending or correcting the original return, requires analysis by a human being,” Smith said. “It isn’t computerized. That takes time even in normal circumstances, but with staffing limited due to social distancing concerns, it could take a little bit longer. But we’re actively working these cases, so we have to ask you to be patient.”

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.