Reasons behind the holdup

Historical archive warehouse full of carton boxes. Low angle shot
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The IRS says its logjam is mostly the result of a "pandemic-related evacuation order" that kept employees out of the agency's facilities.

Most of the IRS workforce has been teleworking, but certain tasks can't be done remotely — requiring employees to be on-site to receive, sort and distribute mail, and process paper tax returns.

The IRS says its backlog includes: about 16.8 million paper returns that haven't been dealt with; about 15.8 million returns that require extra attention; and some 2.7 million amended returns needing processing.

The agency also has been struggling with a serious manpower shortage — in early March, there were 4,400 vacant processing positions, according to an inspector general's report.

Aging office equipment has been another problem. As of March 30, IRS management estimated that 42% of the machines used for processing tasks were unusable, while others were broken but still functional. Printers and copiers were out of ink, or their service contracts had expired.

The advice for taxpayers

Woman sits in front of computer, holding hands in front of face, looking upset
MargJohnsonVA / Twenty20

Unfortunately, there’s not much consumers can do to speed things up.

"For taxpayers who can afford to wait, the best advice is to be patient and give the IRS time to work through its processing backlog," says national taxpayer advocate Erin M. Collins, in a recent report to Congress.

The best thing you could have done was make sure there were no errors or incomplete details when you filed your tax return. Mistakes and missing information can get returns flagged for review by human beings.

Don't get so frustrated that you file your taxes a second time, because that can cause an even longer delay. And calling the IRS may not help much, as officials say the agency’s ability to respond to calls to its support center has been hampered. Wait times are averaging about a half-hour, according to the IRS website.

What you're left to do is monitor the IRS Where’s My Refund tool in hopes it'll give you an update on your super slow refund.

What to do if you needed your refund yesterday

Close up of woman sitting on couch, using calculator on top of pile of papers
fizkes / Shutterstock

"Particularly for low-income taxpayers and small businesses operating on the margin, refund delays can impose significant financial hardships, says Collins in her report.

According to the IRS, this year's average tax refund amount is $2,850, which is a significant amount of money to be waiting for. If you've needed that cash to pay bills or deal with credit card debt that has piled up during the pandemic, here are a few options to free up a little more cash in your budget.

  • Slash your insurance bills. With so many drivers using their cars less frequently because of COVID, some auto insurance companies are offering discounts. Not yours? Sounds like it's time to find a policy at a better price. While you’re at it, you also could save hundreds on homeowners insurance by shopping around for a lower rate.

  • Refinance at a better rate. Have you looked into refinancing your home loan in the last year? You could be missing out on some truly game-changing savings. An estimated 14 million homeowners have the potential to save an average $287 a month with a refi, according to mortgage and data technology provider Black Knight.

  • Take small steps that can add up to big savings. Drop any unused streaming subscriptions you're not using, always go to the grocery store with a list you'll stick to, and use a free browser add-on that automatically hunts for better prices and coupons whenever you buy online.

  • Get your coins working for you. Generating extra income in the stock market can be affordable and beginner-friendly. One popular app helps you invest your "spare change” and grow a diversified portfolio.

About the Author

Sigrid Forberg

Sigrid Forberg

Staff Writer

Sigrid is a staff writer with MoneyWise. Before joining the team, she worked for a B2B publication in the hardware and home improvement industry and ran an internal employee magazine for the federal government. As a graduate of the Carleton University Journalism program, she takes pride in telling informative, engaging and compelling stories.

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