Most taxpayers deal with the Internal Revenue Service electronically. That's the method that the agency has been encouraging for years.
But some things still are handled the old-fashioned way. These are paper documents that are mailed by the IRS to taxpayers — like notices you get as an initial contact, not the money-demanding calls from con artists pretending to be IRS employees — and vice versa.
Those paper communications, especially those from us to Uncle Sam's tax collector, have been piling up due to COVID-19 precautions.
IRS COVID-19 closure complications: To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, the IRS, like other government agencies and private businesses, sent more than half of its 81,000 staff home starting around mid-March.
Most of them worked from their personal locations as best they could.
Still, some tasks naturally were let slide. Opening mail sent to IRS offices was one of them.
Now it's become a major issue.
Neither sleet nor snow nor a pandemic: The U.S. Postal Service was one of the few operations that kept doing its job while much of the country followed stay-home orders.
In addition to delivering snail-mailed COVID-19 economic relief paper checks and debit cards, postal carriers also have been dropping off bags of material to IRS offices. This has been going on even as most tax staff weren't there to handle it.
And that's led to around 10 million pieces of tax-related mail waiting to be processed by the IRS. That number includes nearly 5 million unopened paper tax returns that have arrived at IRS offices nationwide since it closed most of them in mid-May, according to a report obtained by POLITICO.
IRS staff returning to work: That massive mail backlog is a key reason why the IRS has called back more than 10,000 of its employees, effective tomorrow, Monday, June 1. Staff at IRS facilities in in Kentucky, Texas and Utah are supposed to be on the job as the new month begins.
That massive collection of unopened mail also is why 10 million is this week's By the Numbers figure.
The back-to-work IRS agents will focus on mail and return processing, taxpayer refund claims, depositing checks, income verification requests, customer service and telephone assistance, according to the report.
More telephone help, too: The IRS' June staff recall comes on the heels of its decision in mid-May to add 3,500 people to take tax telephone calls.
These phone representatives will be able to answer some of the most common questions about the coronavirus economic impact payments (EIPs).
Still, you're likely to be on hold for a bit, so the IRS recommends we use its Web page if we have general COVID-19 stimulus questions. The IRS says that FAQ page will have answers to most of EIP answers. Updates are posted as they become available.
Worker safety protocol: The continued push of online services is not surprising. The IRS, like all employers worry, as the United States starts to return to more of its pre-coronavirus activities.
For businesses, both in the public and private sectors, the safety of their customers and, of course, their employees is paramount.
That's one reason the IRS has said that while it's asking many staffers to return to their offices on June 1, and more are expected to be recalled in coming weeks, those with existing health issues are exempt.
That exclusion is important. Social distancing still is one of the best ways to prevent spread of COVID-19. And Uncle Sam's operations have not been spared.
Nearly 130 federal workers have died from the coronavirus pandemic. While the IRS is not among the federal agencies hardest hit by COVID-19, around 100 IRS workers reportedly (as of an end-of-April count) have contracted the virus, with a handful hospitalized.
Persistence + patience required: It's obviously frustrating when you have a tax matter and can't get the in-person or even phone help you want. But remember that the IRS is working under the same extraordinary circumstances as we all are.
Keep trying to take care of your tax matters. Document the issues and how you've tried to resolve them.
But also be patient. It's a new and challenging coronavirus tax time for everyone.
|Coronavirus Caveat & More Information
In 2020, we're all dealing with extraordinary circumstances,
both in our daily lives and when it comes to our taxes.
The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to reduce its transmission
and protect ourselves and our families means that,
for the most part, we're focusing on just getting through these trying days.
But life as we knew it before the coronavirus will return,
along with our mundane tax matters.
Here's hoping that happens soon!
In the meantime, you can find more on the virus and its effects on our taxes
by clicking Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Taxes.