Providing Quality Service in Challenging Times

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Learn more about how IRS has been working to provide quality service to taxpayers while actively responding to the impacts of the pandemic including focusing on the safety and health of taxpayers and our employees.

Get to know the IRS, its people and the issues that affect taxpayers


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By Karen Michaels
CL-21-21, July 7, 2021

As we administer our nation’s tax system, we are eager to serve America’s taxpayers. We continuously strive to provide the assistance taxpayers need to properly file and pay their taxes while also enforcing the tax laws to maintain fairness for all.

Since the pandemic began more than a year ago, the IRS has worked hard to provide quality service to taxpayers while actively responding to the impacts of the pandemic including focusing on the safety and health of taxpayers and our employees. We continued to strongly encourage people to use existing electronic tools available on IRS.gov as much as possible, where we keep building on the wealth of helpful resources to meet their needs from frequently asked questions to online tools. We’ve also continued to provide face-to-face tax assistance by appointment, while also serving those who walk-in with hardships situations.

Another important way the IRS provides service to taxpayers is through our toll-free telephone lines. Did you know that the IRS has one of the world’s largest customer service phone operations? We have over 13,000 Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) – including almost 3,000 seasonal employees who work mainly during the filing season – at 24 locations in all mainland time zones plus Puerto Rico. We provide telephone service from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. staggered nationally according to time zones.

We have always been proud to serve individuals, businesses, tax professionals and tax-exempt entities. We have specialty lines for the hearing impaired, identity theft, the taxpayer protection program and appointment services at our Taxpayer Assistance Centers. And, we offer over the phone translation services in 350 languages. During disasters, such as February’s extreme weather in Texas, our phone staff also proudly assists the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in answering urgent calls from disaster victims.

If people want to talk to an IRS employee to get the help they need, we want to answer the phone to provide that assistance. And, believe it or not, we’ve answered more calls this year than the same time last year. However, like everyone else, there was no way we could prepare to respond to the dramatic increase in the number of people that would call us for help.

COVID Challenges

When we closed most of our buildings in March 2020, to protect employees and taxpayers from COVID-19, our services were significantly reduced. Our Information Technology operation worked rapidly – within weeks – to provide our Customer Service Representatives (CSR) with necessary equipment so they could help taxpayers from the safety of their homes. This was a critical step in maintaining phone operations, but even with most of our CSRs able to telework, the volume of phone calls skyrocketed beyond anything we expected or had received before.

To give you an idea of the scope of our phone operations so far this year, we have already received over 145 million calls. That’s about four times more calls than we get in an average year! On March 15, 2021 alone, we received 8.6 million calls, which is approximately 1,500 calls per second! That volume was a 600 percent increase compared to normal call traffic. During a typical filing season, we average 2 to 3 million calls each day. Through June 19 of this year, the IRS handled more than 41 million calls through both automation and live assistance.

One of the ways we measure how well we are delivering telephone support is the IRS “Level of Service,” or LOS, which generally refers to how many of those who call are able to speak to a Customer Service Representative. Since the number of calls increased so dramatically, but the number of employees available to answer the calls did not, our LOS has been much lower than we’d like. The assistors who answer telephone calls also answer the mail. And just like calls, mail volume has increased. It is about double what we typically receive. So, even though we are current opening mail in all of our processing centers and our CSRs have answered more calls so far this year than the same time last year, we know we’ve missed the opportunity to provide the level of service we are used to and that the public expects. Back in early 2020, there was no way to predict the severity and duration of the pandemic nor the impact it would have on call demand, filing season and hiring. Additionally, IRS moved with great speed to implement the tax law changes sparked by COVID-19, including three rounds of Economic Impact Payments. Because the pandemic has caused challenges for many taxpayers, our assistors often take more time to appropriately listen to their issues and provide helpful information, and we’ve encouraged them to do that.

We understand that complex tax issues and the pandemic have many taxpayers confused and looking for help. We are committed to providing the service they need to help them – on the phone or through whatever channel they prefer – and we will utilize all allocated funding to improve taxpayer communications with our agency.

But we know we need to do better, and we’re working to improve to the extent our resources and external dependencies like sufficient applicant pools allow. We are trying new training resources to get people on the phones in less than the usual 14-week timeframe, and we’re using artificial intelligence to answer simple questions, so CSRs are free to answer more complex calls. We’re also expanding our “customer callback” feature that allows callers to choose to receive a return call from us rather than stay on hold. This has saved people hundreds of thousands of hours waiting for assistance, and we plan to expand this capability in the future.

Online Resources

Every year, we encourage taxpayers to visit IRS.gov to find immediate assistance as we know that it’s more important now than ever to provide 24/7 online support to taxpayers. IRS.gov has already received more than one billion visits in calendar year 2021, and since the pandemic began.

We are continuing to innovate our online assistance. People can now engage with us to address more issues remotely and digitally, including exploring a new online “chat” function as part of our Taxpayer Digital Communications program. We’ve added new features to the IRS Online Account for taxpayers and created web applications like “Get My Payment” for tracking Economic Impact Payments, the “Tax Withholding Estimator” to help taxpayers estimate payroll withholding and the “Advance Child Tax Credit Eligibility Assistant,” the “Child Tax Credit Update Portal,” and the “Child Tax Credit Non-filer Sign-up Tool” to determine eligibility, register for and manage Advance Child Tax Credit payments. We recently achieved the long-time goal of enabling taxpayers to e-File amended returns, effective for e-Filed 1040 and 1040-SR returns for tax year 2019 and later. We have also redesigned our online Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Assistant to make it more user friendly.

To improve service to taxpayers who are more comfortable in languages other than English, the IRS has enhanced multilingual web content, forms and instructions. Many pages on IRS.gov are now available in Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Korean, Haitian Creole and Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), and basic tax information is available on the website in 20 languages. And the IRS continues to expand its efforts to post and link to information available in multiple languages on social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram.

For this year’s filing season, for the first time, we provided the Form 1040 in Spanish. Also, for the first time, the 2020 Form 1040 gave taxpayers the opportunity to indicate whether they wish to be contacted in a language other than English. New Schedule LEP allows taxpayers to check a box letting us know in which of 20 languages they prefer to receive written communications from the IRS. To date, more than 220,000 taxpayers have electronically submitted a Schedule LEP with their return.

Looking Ahead

We understand that complex tax issues and the pandemic have many taxpayers confused and looking for help. We are committed to providing the service they need to help them – on the phone or through whatever channel they prefer – and we will utilize all allocated funding to improve taxpayer communications with our agency.

Meanwhile, we will continue trying our best within our current constraints, and we are working through this. We could also use your help. If you’re looking for a new career or job opportunity or know someone who is, please consider a CSR position or other positions at the IRS. Check us out on LinkedIn or USAJobs.gov.

As we move forward, we appreciate the patience and understanding of everyone, members of Congress as well as taxpayers and tax professionals. All of us at the IRS want to improve the service we provide to taxpayers, now and in the future – and we will.

Karen Michaels
Director, Accounts Management, Wage & Investment

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About the Author

Karen Michaels is the Director, Accounts Management in the Wage and Investment (W&I) Division. She is responsible for leading an organization of over 18,000 employees who provide America’s taxpayers with tax law and account-related assistance via telephone, correspondence and web from 10 campuses, 15 remote call sites and headquarters locations, nationwide.

 

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