The 2021 tax filing season started late and was extended an extra month due to the coronavirus pandemic. To make matters worse, the agency was inundated with phone calls and unable to keep up. During the 2021 filing period, the IRS received 167 million phone calls, four times more than during the 2019 season. As a result, only 9% of calls were answered by a live customer service representative.The popular “1040” line, the most frequently dialed IRS toll-free number, received 85 million calls during the 2021 filing season, with only 3% of callers reaching a live person.
Since the start of 2021, the IRS has issued the second and third economic impact payments, better known as stimulus checks. The second, for up to $600, started going out at the end of December 2020, as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. The third, for up to $1,400, started going out in the middle of March, as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. The IRS began accepting tax returns on February 12. So the latest check was processed during tax season, its busiest time of the year.
Another key component of the American Rescue Plan is the updated Child Tax Credit. Starting July 15, the IRS will pay $3,600 per child to parents of children up to age five. Half will come as six monthly payments, and half as a 2021 tax credit. That comes out to $300 per month and another $1,800 at tax time. The total amount changes to $3,000 per child for parents of six to 17 year olds, or $250 per month and $1,500 at tax time. The IRS has also been standing up this new program of monthly Child Tax Credit payments during tax season. While the agency has now sent out three stimulus checks, it has no experience sending out millions of periodic payments. Resources dedicated to setting up this program are resources not dedicated to its core mission, which is to “provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all.”
Erin Collins’s report also cites limited resources and technology issues as reasons for delays in processing tax returns. The agency operated under many of the same limitations that have affected office workers the world over during the pandemic. That included remote work, which can affect efficiency. The IRS is also understaffed and underfunded. Congress has continually reduced the agency’s budget over the last decade. Funding and total employment are both down by about 20 percent.
Beginning the tax season at a disadvantage contributed to the 35 million-return backlog. Tasking the IRS with stimulus checks and the updated Child Tax Credit at the same time drew resources away from processing tax returns. And a history of understaffing and underfunding set them up for failure. All of this put a strain on Americans who were counting on timely refunds.