Inside IRS Operations to Handle COVID and the 2020 Filing Season

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A behind-the-scenes look at how the IRS executed a successful filing season while delivering Economic Impact Payments and other tax relief to help Americans during the COVID-19 outbreak

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By Jeff Tribiano
CL-20-05, November 17, 2020

Last year at this time, our workforce had no idea how their best laid plans for the 2020 Filing Season would drastically change. 2020 turned into a filing season and a year like no other.

Here’s a closer look into what went on behind-the-scenes for the IRS to simultaneously execute a highly successful filing season while taking on significant new responsibilities to deliver Economic Impact Payments and implement other tax relief to help Americans during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Stepping up for the CARES Act and Issuing Economic Impact Payments

Delivering the CARES Act was a mammoth undertaking following Congressional approval in March, and we knew that Americans were counting on us in their time of need to deliver the Economic Impact Payments quickly. This became more challenging at the end of March, when we issued an evacuation order and closed more than 90% of IRS buildings to protect our workforce and taxpayers. Many of our employees transitioned to work remotely during this period.

As IRS employees have done in previous times of crisis, they stepped up to the challenge of delivering the Economic Impact Payments. The massive effort involved multiple IRS organizations that included Wage & Investment (W&I), Information Technology (IT), Communications & Liaison (C&L) and our Chief Counsel working alongside other federal agencies. It was an around-the-clock sprint in accordance with the statutory mandate to deliver these payments “as rapidly as possible.” Across the agency, we were making rapid-fire changes in unprecedented, vastly accelerated timeframes to meet the Congressional mandate to issue payments as quickly as possible.

As the new legislative requirements unfolded, with reduced staff in many of our offices, IRS employees quickly pivoted from other planned work, collaborating while working remotely and stretching themselves to deliver this critical relief.  Teams met with numerous internal and external partners to understand approximately 35 pages of CARES Act legislative requirements. Next, our IT organization programmed IRS systems accordingly, coding significant and complex changes to the systems (referred to as the IRS master files) and many other computer systems. To accomplish this, hundreds of employees worked by phone and email throughout the day, at night and on weekends.

Some of this work was tied to our unprecedented steps to speed up the process by issuing automatic payments to certain groups of people, something we’d never done during previous stimulus efforts.  Given that this law was also passed during a filing season – our most visible and busy time of year – this was the first time that delivering such a payment, in many instances, required us to look at two years of tax returns. Internally, the CARES Act required us to identify eligible individuals based on 2019 tax returns (and 2018 returns for either those who had yet to file a 2019 return, or those whose returns had not been processed yet).  Knowing that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Railroad Retirement Board had information about potentially eligible individuals whose only income was from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments, as well as those who received disability compensation, pension or survivor benefits from the VA or railroad benefits, we developed new processes and programming to enable the transfer of information from these government agencies securely and accurately.

As a result, the IRS was able to determine the advance credit amount for millions of eligible individuals, most of whom we would otherwise not have had any information for. This allowed us to accelerate delivery of automatic payments through the same channels used to issue their monthly benefits, such as Direct Express, direct deposit or check – saving taxpayers time and effort.

Delivering the Economic Impact Payments was no small undertaking and required collaboration across many IRS offices and with our external partners.  But the huge benefit of this approach was that most people received a payment without having to take any action. This went beyond anything the IRS was able to do during previous stimulus efforts.

As a result of these coordinated efforts, within two weeks of the enactment of the CARES Act, the IRS and our Treasury partners at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service (BFS) distributed payments totaling more than $147 billion to more than 81 million people.  In comparison, in 2008, the last time we issued stimulus payments, it took 75 days to get the first payments out.  But we weren’t done yet.

Across the agency, we were making rapid fire changes in unprecedented, vastly accelerated timeframes to meet the Congressional mandate to issue payments as quickly as possible.

Knowing there were likely many other people who needed help getting payments quickly, we took immediate steps to assist them. Building upon the successful use of our Where’s My Refund? tool and our partnership with our private-sector Free File partners, our teams developed two tools on IRS.gov, Non-filers: Enter Your Payment Info Here and Get My Payment . Get My Payment enabled users to check on the status of their payment and in some cases add direct deposit information to speed delivery of their payments. The Non-filers tool allowed people who normally don’t file a tax return to quickly register for a payment.

How important were these tools?

On April 15, the first day of launching Get My Payment, the application successfully processed more than 16.6 million requests for payment information, and 2.7 million taxpayers successfully provided direct deposit information to get their payment faster. To date, there have been more than 200 million successful status checks on Get My Payment, and more than 14 million people have successfully provided their banking information to get their payment via direct deposit.

A critical component to the success we saw in the spring and summer was our ability to execute, review operations, gather feedback and make improvements.  We heard from individuals, our employees, Congress and oversight groups, tax professionals and partners across the country and then used that input to make continued improvements to our online tools, web content and outreach efforts.  These continued efforts enabled us to make sure people got the payments in the most efficient way possible.

Sadly, any time we’re issuing money to taxpayers, we know that bad actors will try to take advantage of the situation. To help with Economic Impact Payments and other CARES Act provisions, we stepped up our efforts across the agency to help protect against fraud, scams and questionable claims. In addition to updating our internal review processes, we pursued action with our Criminal Investigation and civil enforcement teams.

The IRS has delivered about 160 million payments totaling approximately $270 billion (and, according to TIGTA, the IRS correctly computed the EIP amount for 98% of the initial 157 million payments that had occurred at the time of their report). Although this is significant, we know there’s still more work to do. While connecting with local community organizations, food banks and homeless shelters, we have also retained a focus on unsheltered individuals as well.  In April, Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs) were authorized to prepare returns for EIP recipients. Our outreach staff continues coordination with our growing network of partners to ensure eligible people, many in underserved communities who don’t normally file a tax return, register for their payments using Non-Filers: Enter Payment Info Here on IRS.gov by the November 21 deadline. 

We’ve distributed EIP outreach materials in more than 35 languages and broadened our network of partners to get the word out, and we hope to put payments into the hands of millions more eligible individuals by the end of the year. Throughout, we have coordinated our efforts with numerous other government agencies, non-profits and community organizations across the country. Tax professionals have also been extremely helpful in distributing outreach materials. We have been continually inspired by the “grass roots” efforts of individuals around the country stepping up to assist others in their communities.

And even with the November 21 deadline, the work on payments will not be over.  People who did not receive payments this year will be eligible to claim them as a credit on their 2020 tax returns filed in 2021. We’ll be providing more information on this as the 2021 filing season approaches.

Executing the 2020 Filing Season

The 2020 filing season got off to a strong start on January 27.  On the first day, we set historic records by processing more than 2.275 million e-filed returns in an hour and at a rate of 631 submissions per second, without error (breaking the records we set in the 2019 filing season of processing more than 1.9 million e-filed returns in an hour and at a rate of 536 submissions per second). There were no filing season delays due to technological errors!

Less than one month from the original April tax filing deadline, we announced that the tax filing due date would be extended to July 15 to give taxpayers relief due to COVID-19. 

Simultaneously and on a parallel track to the CARES Act implementation, W&I and other business units defined the requirements needed by our technology teams to make widespread system changes to accommodate an extension of the tax filing and payment season to July 15 and ensure continuity of IRS operations. The necessary coding required to implement the technical requirements of the extended tax filing season touched more than 20 IRS information systems, including some of the agency’s most complex systems.

Throughout the filing season, IRS online systems enabled millions of successful taxpayer transactions, with over 7.7 million payments completed via Direct Pay, and over 27.5 million taxpayer transcripts delivered. The Where's My Refund? application supported over 510 million requests.

While all this was going on during the summer, we started resuming many of our operations and continued to take steps to protect employees. Reducing the backlog of unopened mail and unprocessed returns due to closed facilities and reduced operations was a priority, as was increasing telephone support for taxpayers with questions. In addition to the many demands on our workforce, our telephone representatives also helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) answer phone calls to help those in need during the hurricane season this year. When we began bringing back employees who could not work remotely, we limited capacity to approximately 50% of employees in certain departments and further reduced the risks in some areas by adding a new shift so work could resume in a socially distant, safe manner. 

At the same time, our employees remained dedicated to delivering the filing season for taxpayers with the new July deadline. In offices around the country, dedicated IRS employees took on added responsibilities to keep things moving, such as taking turns going into the office to process letters and take certified mail to the local post office while our mail facilities were closed.  In IT, support employees delivered computer equipment to teleworking employees to enable them to work more efficiently, and experienced teleworkers virtually trained employees who had previously only worked in the office to ensure they could telework productively. No task was too big or too small to get the job done. 

Despite all the challenges and because of the commitment and hard work of our workforce and partners, the tax season was a success. As of November 6, the IRS received more than 167.2 million individual returns, and has issued more than 124.8 million refunds for more than $314.5 billion. Combining EIPs and refunds, IRS employees have proudly distributed more than $580 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly operating in a virtual, telework environment, while personally sharing the same health and safety concerns of every other American!

This has been an unprecedented year unlike any we’ve ever seen. And with COVID-19 continuing and another major tax season approaching in 2021, the IRS still has more work to do. But as I’ve seen throughout my career of service to the nation, times like this bring out the best in people. As the IRS has throughout its history, our employees deliver for the nation in times of crisis. In 2020, once again we have seen the very best in our workforce and our partners to support the people we serve. I’m proud to serve our country and to be able to do so alongside dedicated, caring employees of the IRS.

Jeff Tribiano
IRS Deputy Commissioner

CARES Act and Filing Season Timeline

  • January 27 — The 2020 tax filing season begins.
     
  • March 13 — President declares national emergency because of the Coronavirus, and IRS leadership recommends employees maximize telework.
     
  • March 21 — Tax filing deadline was extended from April 15 to July 15 to give taxpayers affected by COVID-19 more time to file.
     
  • March 27 — The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law, requiring the IRS to issue Economic Impact Payments to eligible individuals.
     
  • March 30 — IRS directed all employees to evacuate work sites and closed more than 90% of buildings across the country, including call centers and Taxpayer Assistance Centers due to COVID-19. IRS quickly ramped up capabilities for remote work, enabling approximately 72 percent of employees to work outside the office.
     
  • April 10 — Within two weeks of the CARES Act being signed, Economic Impact Payments were sent to more than 81 million people.
     
  • November 6 — The IRS received more than 167.2 million individual returns and issued more than 124.8 million refunds for more than $314.5 billion.
 
Jeff Tribiano, Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support

About the Author

Jeff Tribiano serves as the IRS Deputy Commissioner, responsible for providing direction and guidance to the major operational and administrative functions of the IRS. He oversees the Chief Financial Officer; Chief Diversity Officer, Chief Facilities Management & Security Officer, Chief Human Capital Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Procurement Officer, Chief Risk Officer, Chief Privacy Officer and Chief Research & Applied Analytics Officer.

 

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