Nearly a third of calls to IRS still go unanswered

The Internal Revenue Service’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
J. David Ake/Associated Press/File
The Internal Revenue Service’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — If you’re among the nearly one-third of US taxpayers who can’t get their calls answered by the nation’s tax collector, reports of improved assistance by the IRS won’t mean much.

But when the agency’s 70 percent telephone answer rate for this filing season is compared to its 38 percent rate for the last fiscal year, mediocre starts to look good.

‘‘The IRS is continuing to struggle to deliver for the American taxpayer,’’ said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. ‘‘I think that there’s no question but that the IRS needs more resources and they need more personnel to meet the demand for taxpayer services, to catch tax cheats and criminals, to effectively fight identity fraud, to enforce tax laws and to collect all the taxes that are owed.’’


Reardon, who represents IRS employees, called a telephone news conference last week to continue the union’s long fight for more funding.

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When more than six of 10 taxpayers were not getting their calls answered last year, it marked a stark drop in service for the agency people love to hate even in the best of times. The high point in recent years was 87 percent in 2004, and at no time since then had the percentage of answered calls fallen below 50 percent — until 2015.

This year’s dramatic improvement has been fueled by temporary hires. When they go, the relatively good performance will, too. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen expects the portion of callers who get telephone service will be just 47 percent for all of 2016.

‘‘Even that’s much better than last year, but we want everybody to understand that it’s still not where we want it to be,’’ he told the National Press Club two weeks ago. ‘‘If we received the president’s fiscal 2017 budget request, our phone level of service would be up to 75 percent next year for the entire year.’’

The IRS suffered a 21 percent staffing cut, amounting to almost 23,000 full- and part-time employees, from 2011 to 2016, the union says. Yet the workload grew. An IRS statement said its budget is ‘‘more than $900 million below 2010 levels despite handling more than 10 million additional tax returns a year and gaining major legislative programs since then.’’


The Government Accountability Office says implementing its recommendations ‘‘is a key step in reducing the $385 billion net tax gap” and strengthening “service to taxpayers.’’