Treasury IG Details IRS’ COVID-19-Related Customer Experience Issues

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Millions of taxpayers have had a hard time reaching the IRS during the pandemic.

Beginning in March 2020, the IRS “took unprecedented and drastic actions” to protect the health and safety of taxpayers and its employees due to the coronavirus pandemic, sending tens of thousands of employees home to remote operations and closing numerous IRS offices.  

More than a year after the pandemic started, the IRS is still struggling to assist taxpayers amid increased demand for services, according to a Treasury Department Inspector General audit released April 22.

The audit provides a nuanced look at IRS’ service during the 2020 tax-filing season and through a portion of 2021. It further details the ramifications of closing all 358 taxpayer assistance centers—locations where taxpayers can receive in-person assistance—and shuttering some services, including 81 of its 87 toll-free telephone lines.

The IRS struggled to bring telephone agents to remote work environments and the majority of toll-free lines remained closed through September 2020, which contributed to a major decrease in telephone performance for the agency. In September 2020, the IRS took approximately six minutes longer to answer taxpayer calls (jumping to 18 minutes in 2020 from 11 minutes in 2019).

The audit indicates one single toll-free line created to provide stimulus check information to taxpayers received 24.6 million calls as of November 28, 2020. More than half of those calls were abandoned by taxpayers, the audit found, “either because the caller’s issue was satisfied by the information provided by the automated message or because the taxpayer grew frustrated and hung up.” More than 11 million calls were added to a contractor’s queue, of which another 3.8 million calls were abandoned, with 2.4 million answered by the IRS.

In-person visits to physical IRS facilities were similarly impacted by COVID-19. The IRS assisted 2.3 million taxpayers face-to-face in fiscal 2019, but only 1 million in fiscal 2020, according to the audit. With many offices still closed, face-to-face assistance numbers are likely to remain low in 2021.

“When the IRS closed its face-to-face assistance sites, it canceled 79,264 scheduled appointments,” the audit states. “As of November 16, 2020, 95 [tax assistance centers] remain closed – 25 sites that are unstaffed for reasons unrelated to the pandemic and 70 sites closed due to pandemic staffing issues. In addition, all 30 [virtual service delivery] partner sites remain closed.”

The audit suggests the IRS’ online service also needs attention, especially given a 146% increase in demand for those services from taxpayers over the past year. The audit indicates the IRS began testing a virtual service option called Web Service Delivery, or WebSD, that connects taxpayers virtually with IRS tax assistors in a fashion akin to patients meeting with doctors remotely through telehealth platforms. However, the pilot began in February 2020 and stalled when the IRS closed its facilities the following month. The IRS has plans to expand the program, but the IG took issue with its current structure.

“We continue to be concerned that even with the planned expansion, the WebSD pilot is not sufficient to provide the IRS a reasonable assessment of the benefit of this service to taxpayers and the IRS,” the audit states. “The WebSD pilot provides the IRS the benefit to evaluate the potential demand for virtual face-to-face service, test the suitability of available technology, and expand access to taxpayers who are seeking face-to-face assistance. In our opinion, the WebSD pilot will not provide meaningful results to inform the IRS’s decisions in any of these areas, as it is currently structured.”

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