NOEL KING, HOST:
It's three months late this year, but Tax Day has arrived. You've got until midnight to file your returns. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The government extended the tax deadline by three months because of the pandemic. But even with that extra time, it hasn't been easy for either taxpayers or the IRS. The coronavirus sidelined many of the volunteers who ordinarily help people with tax preparation. The AARP Foundation typically runs some 5,000 help centers in public libraries and the like. Foundation president Lisa Marsh Ryerson says they reluctantly suspended that service earlier this spring.
LISA MARSH RYERSON: Obviously, given COVID-19, we were most concerned about the safety of the taxpayers and also of our volunteers, many of whom are of an age where they are more susceptible to the coronavirus.
HORSLEY: Foundation volunteers did help nearly 1.5 million people with their taxes before the pandemic hit. Last year, though, they helped nearly twice that many.
A volunteer center near Milwaukee has been offering drive-through help so people can get their taxes done without leaving their cars. Marsh Ryerson says the AARP Foundation is also offering some limited tax coaching from a distance.
MARSH RYERSON: Taxpayers can call via the phone or through screen-sharing so that they can be walked through their ability to use the online filing system.
HORSLEY: It's not ideal, especially for seniors who may be uncomfortable with computers or people without a good Internet connection. Still, Marsh Ryerson says people who tried the remote coaching were generally satisfied.
The coronavirus also seems to have cut into the professional tax preparation business this year, either because preparers closed their doors or clients were reluctant to go see them. So far, professionals have filed about 10% fewer returns this year than last, while e-filings by do-it-yourselfers are up nearly 11%.
The vast majority of taxpayers do file electronically, but some still go the old-fashioned route, mailing in a paper return. Processing all that paper is one reason tens of thousands of IRS workers were called back to the office in recent weeks.
TONY REARDON: They're opening mail and handling paper returns.
HORSLEY: Tony Reardon heads the union that represents IRS workers. He's concerned about employees in big service centers, like the one in Austin, Texas, where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly. Older employees and others at high risk have been excused from returning to work, but Reardon says the danger of infecting employees is still high.
REARDON: And then, of course, what do they do? They go home. They then run the risk of passing it on to their families. Their families then pass it on to the community. Now you've got community spread. That is exactly what we're trying as a country, I think, to guard against.
HORSLEY: Nationwide, Reardon says nearly 300 IRS employees have tested positive for coronavirus. At least eight have died. He argued unsuccessfully to have the tax deadline extended for another three months.
REARDON: I get it that employees have work to do for the American people, and they certainly want to do that. But no IRS employee should have to risk his or her life in order to come back and do their work.
HORSLEY: By the time IRS employees were called back to the office last month, nearly 5 million paper tax returns had piled up in warehouses and tractor-trailers. The agency's Taxpayer Advocate warn paper filers expecting a refund could be in for a long wait.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.