Ringing off the Hook Gets a New Meaning at the IRS

Number of the Day: The most relevant or interesting figure in personal finance

144 million

That’s how many more calls the IRS has received so far this year than it did in all of 2020, showing how pandemic-era changes to tax rules have added complexities for taxpayers. 

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said in a letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, released Thursday, that the IRS had answered about 49 million calls this year—out of 199 million it’s received. That number includes calls taken by live operators and by automated services. The average time spent on each call also rose—to more than 19 minutes from 13 minutes in 2019. Rettig said that was because of “the complexity of COVID-related tax law changes and because taxpayers have personally endured a lot throughout the pandemic. Some taxpayers have experienced isolation without anyone else to talk to for a long time.”

The surge in call volumes and talk time is a reflection of how complex a pandemic year has been for filers and for the IRS. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the IRS pivoted, like most Americans, to sheltering in place and working from home when offices closed. During this time, the IRS not only processed tax returns but took on the extra burden of distributing various rounds of stimulus money and facilitating new tax laws, including an unemployment income exclusion that came after tax season started in February.

Even with all its customer service representatives working, the IRS “cannot keep up with the volume of phone calls that has skyrocketed beyond anything we’ve ever experienced,” Rettig said. 

To help the agency work its way through all the taxpayer queries, Rettig is asking Congress to approve President Joe Biden’s request for increased funding for the IRS in fiscal year 2022, including a $318 million program to improve customer service. Otherwise, “too many taxpayers will be unable to reach live assistance when needed, and those who do get through will face longer wait times for service,” Rettig warned.

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