Projected to lose 52,000 employees in the next six years, the IRS is seeking new personnel, Commissioner Charles Rettig told CPAs Tuesday.
Rettig's keynote address to the AICPA & CIMA National Tax Conference in Washington, D.C., touched on challenges the Service still faces in basic operations after he temporarily closed down most in-person operations in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. But Rettig also touted achievements in adapting amid unprecedented taxpayer service demands while getting stimulus payments out the door and administering other relief.
A panel of other IRS top executives then spoke in turn, sounding similar refrains. After that, the national taxpayer advocate, Erin Collins, addressed some of the lapses in service Rettig had acknowledged, only more pointedly and with stated concerns for the upcoming tax filing season.
As in previous appearances before the annual conference since 2018, Rettig spoke largely from personal experience, stressing his origins from a working-class family and professional kinship with the audience from his career as a tax lawyer. And he again invoked his family connections to immigrants — his father from Europe and his wife from Vietnam — in his emphasis on enhancing the Service's multilingual capabilities.
IRS staff "pivoted exceptionally well" to recover its functions in the initial stages of the pandemic, Rettig said.
He also acknowledged that the IRS today remains far from hitting its service goals but urged CPAs to consider the ballooning volume of telephone calls and mail it has received: From 42 million phone calls in 2018 and 44 million in 2019, the IRS received 246 million telephone calls just in the first eight months of 2021. On March 15, the volume was 1,500 calls per second, he said.
During 2020, the IRS distributed $830 billion in economic impact payments, with a 98% accuracy rate, according to an audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, he said.
"You can sit there and say we let you down," Rettig said. "I'm fine with that, because you're operating through your life experiences. I have the privilege of seeing it on both sides."
Regarding hiring going forward, Rettig said he envisions attracting three categories of new employees: those out of college in the past five years, a second group of young professionals ages 35 to 45, and a third group of seasoned professionals working mainly to guide the first two groups.
But that won't happen without more congressional appropriations — at least an extra $100 million for every 10% increase in phone calls answered, he added.
"This agency has been starved for far too long," Rettig said. "You don't get your phone calls answered because we don't have an appropriation to put more people on the phones."
Rettig asked the CPAs to "help us help others" and specifically to coordinate the IRS's efforts to support "vulnerable communities" and "ethnic professional associations."
Next, CPAs heard about enforcement priorities and service initiatives within several IRS operating divisions and offices from their leaders: Drita Tonuzi, deputy chief counsel; Nikole Flax, commissioner for the Large Business and International Division; Darren Guillot, commissioner for Small Business/Self-Employed (SBSE) Collection; De Lon Harris, commissioner of SB/SE; Sunita Lough, commissioner of the Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Division; and (joining online) Ken Corbin, commissioner of the Wage and Investment Division and taxpayer experience officer. Several of them also reiterated Rettig's call for job applicants.
Corbin said tax practitioners will soon be able to order up to 30 taxpayer transcripts at once via the IRS's Practitioner Priority Service phone line, triple the current maximum. (The IRS provided more details on this later in the day in News Release IR-2021-226.)
Guillot said "natural language voice bots" will be able to set up some taxpayers' streamlined payment plans, freeing human operators for others who need live help.
Lough identified several types of promoted transactions "taking advantage of a tax-indifferent party" that her division will be targeting.
Collins, the national taxpayer advocate (NTA), described her Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) office's quasi-autonomous and sometimes adversarial role with the IRS, made all the more difficult with the IRS's and her own office's staffing shortage.
"I didn't realize this was a jobs fair," she quipped, "but please apply to the IRS and NTA-TAS; we are hiring as well."
TAS cases that before the pandemic were typically resolved within four or five days are now taking that many weeks, Collins acknowledged. She urged practitioners' patience but agreed with a comment from the audience that's not an acceptable solution.
The IRS is not processing amended returns, Collins said flatly, which a taxpayer assistance order can't very well remedy.
"It gets down to resources," she said. "If they don't have bodies, I can order them all I like, but they can't get it done." And, she said, she has forebodings that the upcoming tax preparation season will be administratively difficult.
"Please electronically file," Collins urged. In response to a question, Collins said her upcoming report to Congress on the 10 most serious problems taxpayers face may include barriers in some cases to e-filing.
— Paul Bonner (Paul.Bonner@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA senior editor.