If you're still waiting on your 2019 tax refund, you're not alone. By the end of 2020, the agency still had a backlog of over 8 million individual returns and other transactions to process, according to a new report from the Treasury Department.
Over 3.5 million individual paper returns are included in that backlog, along with almost 1.5 million amended returns. That's a 1,835% and 1,238% increase, respectively, compared to the end of 2019, per the report.
There are a number of reasons for the backlog. For one, the agency employs 15% fewer employees than it did a decade ago, so there are fewer people to process returns. And it also has over 4,400 unfilled positions in the processing department, Treasury's report says.
In addition to processing normal returns from last filing season and this filing season, the smaller staff has had to distribute hundreds of millions of stimulus payments over the past year, implement other recent tax law changes like the increased Child and Dependent Care Credit and send out tax refunds on 2020 unemployment benefits to those who already filed their 2020 returns.
Paper returns, in particular, have been delayed because IRS staff was not physically in the office for much of last year to process them due to Covid-19 social distancing measures. With staff returning, the amount of paper returns from 2020 left to process fell from 3,540,486 to 2,144,347 as of March 20, 2021.
Another reason for the backlog is a lack of working computers and printers at IRS offices, the report says. In the Kansas City, Missouri, Tax Processing Center, for example, just three of the 10 printers and copiers were working at the end of March.
"These devices are needed to make copies of tax returns to fulfill requests for tax documents from taxpayers and other institutions," the report reads. "The employees we spoke with were concerned that they would have a work stoppage if these remaining devices became unfunctional."
Delays in processing refunds have continued into this tax filing season, with millions taking longer than the typical 21 days, according to the National Taxpayer Advocate.
Calls going unanswered
As taxpayers wait for their refunds and stimulus payments, they have made nearly 46.3 million phone calls to IRS assistance lines, per Treasury's report. Just 4.4 million — or 9.5% — have been answered by an actual human. And those who did get to speak to a human had to wait on hold for 18 minutes, on average.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the IRS has said not to call in to helplines, as the agency had closed Tax Processing Centers, Taxpayer Assistance Centers and other offices due to Covid concerns. Instead, it has encouraged taxpayers to use the Where's My Refund? tool on its site for updates.