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Tax season is nearing, but the IRS has millions of last year's returns to get through

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Tax season starts Monday. That's when the IRS will begin accepting 2021 income tax returns. Most people have until April 18 to submit them. This filing season is going to be an especially challenging one for the IRS, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: As it starts to accept this year's returns, the IRS is still working through millions filed last year, and that's just one of its problems.

MARK EVERSON: The service is in the roughest shape it's been in in 50 years.

NAYLOR: That's Mark Everson, who was IRS commissioner in the George W. Bush administration. He says the agency is understaffed, has more work than it can handle and is underfunded.

EVERSON: So the result of all those factors is they've got huge backlogs right now that are unprocessed returns from prior years, refund requests, a lot of correspondence that hasn't even been opened. And the phones are not working correctly. It's very tough to get through on the phone. So that's a bad cocktail.

NAYLOR: The IRS has its own internal watchdog, the National Taxpayer Advocate. In her annual report to Congress this month, the advocate Erin Collins said the agency last year had a backlog of some 35 million returns that required manual processing. Taxpayers who called the IRS for guidance had only a one in nine chance of getting their calls answered. She told NPR this week that it's all pretty annoying for taxpayers.

ERIN COLLINS: It has been a very painful period of time, very frustrating, very hard for taxpayers. They can't get through to the IRS through phones. Their paper correspondence have been piling up, so it's very difficult for them to figure out what's going on.

NAYLOR: Collins says the IRS budget has declined by about 20% in the last 10 years, while the number of tax returns filed has gone up 13%. The agency's computers are the oldest major tech systems in the federal government. At the same time, the IRS workload has increased. In the last two years, it's had to distribute three rounds of COVID-19 stimulus payments to eligible Americans as well as the child tax credit.

Caroline Bruckner is managing director of the Kogod Tax Policy Center at American University.

CAROLINE BRUCKNER: That is far more than just processing returns. It's also having to make sure that those refunds and those amounts go to the right bank accounts and that people are properly filing their returns so that they can access those benefits in what is a time of economic emergency.

NAYLOR: And while Congress did provide extra money for the IRS to process those payments, Bruckner says it's far short of what the agency really needs, a sentiment echoed by White House press secretary Jen Psaki today, who called on lawmakers to boost funding for the service. COVID-19 also means that many IRS employees are working from home.

Former Commissioner Everson says one thing the agency should do now is call those workers back.

EVERSON: It should be all hands to the pump at this time. They need to get everybody back in the office as soon as possible so you just have more bodies working on these issues.

NAYLOR: So given all that, how should taxpayers deal with such a beleaguered agency? The IRS says make sure all your documents are together when you begin work on your return and to file electronically. Also, taxpayers who earn less than $58,000 a year and seniors should know they can get free help filing from something called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or VITA. Details are on the irs.gov website.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "SUNSET LOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.