There has to be a better way to help taxpayers with their problems.
In more than a few columns, I’ve written about customer-service problems at the Internal Revenue Service. Now I know firsthand just how bad they can be.
On Saturday, May 14, I waited 5 ½ hours for a meeting with a courteous and helpful IRS employee. I was at the agency’s Taxpayer Assistance Center in Harlem, one of two New York City IRS offices open that day—along with three dozen others across the country—for walk-in visits. No more walk-in days at any IRS office are scheduled for the rest of 2022.
I arrived at 8:30 a.m., because the hours were 9 to 4 and I wanted to be near the front of the line. Silly me: The line had started forming by 6:30, and by my count I was No. 48. By 9 a.m., the line had about 100 people and stretched a full city block outside the building. Some people brought their children.
There was no place to sit or even lean other than the ledge of a storefront and low crossbars of scaffolding, so I envied the smart person who had brought a red folding beach chair. I congratulated another who persuaded workers at the Shop Fair market next to us to lend a plastic milk crate so people could take turns sitting down.
My fellow taxpayers and I hoped the line would move quickly when the IRS office opened at 9. These hopes were dashed when a supervisor appeared and said—in answer to my question—that the waiting room had 12 seats and there were five IRS employees helping taxpayers.
And so we waited and waited and waited. When three people would come out after a long interval, three more could go in. At times the crowd grew restive and fights nearly broke out when someone tried to jump the line, which was a temptation because there was no cordon.
All morning, workers pushed rattling pallets of hot-dog rolls, cinnamon bread and other goods through our line and into the Shop Fair for delivery. Around noon, someone pulling a wagon loaded with cold water and soda came by: “It’s hot out here, waiting for the IRS. Ice or no ice, it’s all the same price.” A few people bought drinks while others, better prepared, got out sandwiches. Without an available bathroom, I was afraid to eat or drink anything.
Talking to fellow taxpayers while we waited, I learned a lot. While our problems varied, each person was as dogged as I was. A payroll-records worker told me she had made a 1 ½-hour trip by train from a New York City exurb because she hadn’t gotten her 2019 refund, while a nearby man said he was missing his 2018 refund. (Most people I spoke with wouldn’t give their last names, and some wouldn’t give one at all.)
A chef needed to fix a glitch that omitted key parts of her e-filed 2021 return from IRS records and understated what she owed. One man said he was due a refund based on a letter he didn’t have because “it went through the washing machine.”
Several, like me, needed to verify their identities so the IRS would release 2021 refunds. The agency wants taxpayers to verify IDs online, but that involves turning over personal records to an outside contractor that holds them for several years or longer, which bothers some people.
I also learned that as different as we were, our problems shared a common feature: None of us, despite mighty efforts, had been able to reach the IRS by phone.
“The letters tell you to call on the phone, but then you can’t get through. They don’t want to talk to us on the phone!” said an angry woman, as others agreed.
National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins, who heads an independent group within the IRS that safeguards taxpayer rights, confirms that recently only about one in 10 callers to the agency has gotten through. Many others aren’t even put on hold but are cut off in a “courtesy disconnect.” That’s what happened with my many calls to the IRS before my in-person visit.
Two people in line complained that they had gone to that IRS office during the week and—although the waiting room was empty—were turned away because they didn’t have appointments. But when they called for appointments, they couldn’t get through. There’s no online option for making an appointment.
In response, the agency said it allows walk-ins during the week in hardship cases, and that even when waiting rooms appear empty, employees are working with taxpayers. It added that it’s implementing customer call-back and chatbot options.
At 12:45 I was finally allowed into the building, where I stood in line again until I was given a number and a seat at 12:59, 4 ½ hours after arriving. It took nearly another hour to be helped, but at least I was sitting down.
Once I was face to face with the IRS employee, things went quickly. Within 10 minutes she had verified my identity using documents I provided. No, she said, my identity hadn’t been stolen; the agency just does these checks sometimes.
Most other taxpayers I spoke with as they left said their problems were solved. The chef said her IRS helper was “brilliant” at dealing with her unusual problem.
The only remaining downside, it seemed, was that my refund won’t come for up to 9 weeks. By the time I heard this, I was so tired, relieved and hungry that I didn’t care. In my rush to leave, I even broke my own first rule of dealing with the IRS: get and keep paper confirmations of all important matters.
Then the next day, I received an email from the chef saying she had just tested positive for Covid. (Talking recipes, we had exchanged emails.) I’ve tested negative since, but there’s no way to know whether others caught the virus. Her diagnosis highlights yet another hazard of the IRS’s inability to answer the phone—especially for the elderly and the immunocompromised.
IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig and Ms. Collins both have said the IRS’s customer-service problems are largely due to a lack of funding for staffing. I devoutly hope Congress will see to it that the IRS can answer its phones—so other taxpayers don’t face what I did.
Credit Given to: Laura Saunders. Published May 20, 2022 in the Wall Street Journal.
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This Week’s Author, Jordan Bradstreet
-until next week.