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The IRS is a hot mess: Millions of tax returns haven’t been processed, and calls are going unanswered, including mine

I received a notice from the agency seven months ago. I still can’t reach a human being to resolve the issue.

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on June 8. (Tom Williams/Pool/CQ Roll Call/AP)
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I want to apologize to every person I’ve encouraged to be patient with the Internal Revenue Service as it stumbles through the aftereffects of the pandemic. Your righteous indignation is warranted.

The IRS is critically malfunctioning.

I didn’t fully grasp, until a recent report from the national taxpayer advocate, that the IRS has officially given up on answering every taxpayer telephone call for assistance — and that has to be fixed.

The agency is a hot mess. You are right to be mad as hell when you can’t reach somebody to help explain why your filing or refund hasn’t been processed. And, yes, I cussed, because the time to be polite and forgiving for the failures at the IRS is so over.

If you call the IRS, there’s only a 1-in-50 chance you’ll reach a human being

Right now, millions of taxpayers are waiting for their much-needed refunds and stimulus payments. Millions more are trying to settle issues with past tax returns and unable get a human being on the telephone, while interest costs potentially tick up each day things go unresolved.

IRS faces 35 million unprocessed tax returns as backlog swells, watchdog says

I’m one in the millions fighting to be heard. But more on that later.

A historically high number of returns needed manual processing this year, slowing the issuance of refunds, Erin Collins, the national taxpayer advocate, wrote in the report. At the end of this year’s filing season, the IRS faced a backlog of more than 35 million individual and business returns.

In its response, the IRS essentially said things aren’t really that bad.

“The numbers provided by the National Taxpayer Advocate do not reflect the current situation at the IRS,” the agency said in a statement.

The IRS said that the 35 million number includes “15.2 million individual and business tax returns that are already in some stage of the normal processing stream and not part of the backlog.” An additional 17.5 million are individual returns that may or may not result in a refund, the IRS said.

Have a question about the child tax credit? Ask our personal finance columnist.

IRS employees have worked hard during unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic. Yet, covid can’t be blamed for all the delays at the agency, which was having issues with taxpayer customer service long before the pandemic.

As Collins wrote, “Not everyone can afford to be patient.”

During the 2021 filing season, the IRS received 167 million telephone calls — over four times the number during the 2019 filing season, Collins wrote. At one point, the IRS received calls at the rate of about 1,500 per second.

“IRS employees could not keep pace with this massive volume of calls, resulting in the poorest service ever,” she said.

On the 1040 line, the most frequently called toll-free IRS number, only 3 percent of 85 million calls from taxpayers reached a phone assister.

“Our ability to answer phone calls reflects the amount of staffing available,” the IRS said in its defense. “Pending budget proposals would help the agency’s ability to assist more taxpayers, including on the phones.”

On this issue, the IRS is right. It isn’t given enough money to help taxpayers. Congress funded the IRS this year to provide a 60 percent level of service.

Think about that for a second, because that’s all it takes to see the callousness of this choice by Congress.

The IRS is struggling to hire, which means a massive backlog of tax returns and refunds, government watchdog says

That level of funding for telephone assisters means that even in a normal year, the IRS would answer 6 out of every 10 calls routed to them, Collins pointed out.

“I don’t think that’s acceptable,” Collins said in an interview. “It should be a lot closer to 100 percent.”

For fiscal 2022, the agency is asking for a total program increase of $915.5 million, including $318 million to increase taxpayer assistance, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said in prepared testimony for a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the agency’s budget last month. Even that would fund only a projected level of phone service of 75 percent.

This brings me to my personal tax saga.

My husband and I received a notice from the IRS in November indicating that we owed an additional $11,786 in income taxes for the 2018 tax year. We did not — not even close.

Admittedly, we had overlooked reporting reinvested dividends from an index fund we own. Fair enough. Our mistake.

But in the process of pointing out that error, the IRS claimed other income wasn’t reported, which was incorrect. We hired a tax professional to help us go through the 11-page notice. We faxed and, as a backup, sent our response through the mail. We calculated what we owed and sent the money right away.

Don’t file a paper 2020 federal tax return if you don’t have to, IRS watchdog warns

We received another notice on June 21. The IRS removed some of the incorrect items, but not all. Now the agency said we owed $7,028.

If you owe the IRS and can’t pay, this is what you should and shouldn’t do

One glaring mistake repeated in the latest notice involved 529 college-plan funds we used to cover tuition, room and board for our three children. Somebody in some IRS office is clueless about what is and isn’t a qualified education expense under the 529 rules. Can’t they search for the information at irs.gov like the agency repeatedly tells taxpayers to do?

“It is very frustrating to hear everyone talk about enforcement, enforcement, enforcement when the IRS is not picking up the phone to talk with people who need to resolve issues, especially when the issues are created by the IRS itself,” said Nina Olson, executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights. Olson served as the independent national taxpayer advocate for 18 years.

“The IRS continually underestimates the need people have to call it,” Olson said. “Every year, it calculates the level of service it is willing to staff and then puts that in the budget request. It no longer even tries to make the case for answering 80 percent of the calls.”

Poor taxpayer service will only further erode trust in the IRS, she said.

Biden wants the IRS to drive his recovery plan. It can barely function as is.

“When the level of service gets so poor and correspondence and problems aren’t being addressed, it just gets cyclical,” Olson said. “You call and then you are cut off after you are on hold. Then you write a letter explaining the situation, but no one answers it. And on it goes until sometimes taxpayers just give up and pay a bill that they really don’t owe, just because they are afraid of what might happen to them.”

I’m angry not for just myself but for the many people who are frustrated trying to get help from the IRS. It might take a 15-minute call to resolve my issue — if I could get somebody on the phone. But many attempts end in being routed electronically through a maze of prompts that leave me wanting to smash my phone.

Then I feel a glimmer of hope when a robotic female voice says, “Please hold while your call is transferred.”

Until I hear this: “We are sorry, but due to extremely high call volume in the topic you requested, we are unable to handle your call at this time. Please try again later or on our next business day. Thank you.”

This computerized ending is so hollow, it makes me holler. I’d be thankful if the IRS would just answer the damn phone.

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