Free tax preparation is different this year due to pandemic

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Volunteer Tax Assistance program or “VITA” helps those with low to moderate incomes navigate the tax system.

VITA offers tax help free to the disabled, the elderly, and limited English speakers. But due to the pandemic, VITA volunteers won’t be able to see as many people as they have in the past.

The tax preparation by VITA volunteers assists thousands of people at various sites in East Tennessee each year; however, this year fewer taxpayers will be serviced because VITA has fewer volunteers, fewer sites and you can’t just walk in. Instead, you have to set up an appointment.

Receiving free tax assistance is not like it used to be this year at VITA sites around East Tennessee.

First, you’ll have to set up an appointment to get assistance. There is no one-on-one service during the pandemic. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance preparers at the CAC Center in Knoxville work on papers at their desks inside while clients wait outside the L. T. Ross Building.

“Because of COVID, everything is different. So, instead of sitting across the desk from us, we now require appointments. It used to be a first-come, first-served type of situation. They make the appointments with us,” Terry Reed, VITA site coordinator, said.

Once on the schedule, some people wait in their cars … and they’ll move quickly once they’re called and told the preparer is ready for them.

“We arrange to come out in front of the building, pick up their paperwork, we tell them what needs to be put in their packet. They fill out all their paperwork, call us when they’re done. We bring it into a tax preparer who prepares it,” Terry Reed said. “And, we go over the tax return. We get the questions answered and when we’re done we meet them outside to go over the return and to get the signatures of the tax return.  It’s a very labor-intensive process compared to what we or the clients are used to.”

And it is a real workout for the preparers as they go back and forth. Sherre Hamker says fortunately everything she needs is in one packet.

“We have a taxpayer consent form, you fill that out. Then, there’s the stimulus and other things you put in the envelope,” Sheree Hamker said. “Then they give you your form and you fill that out in pencil. And then you turn in all your tax stuff – your ID, social security card, and whatever else you need — drop it off and wait for them to call you.”

However, the pandemic will likely cut by half the number of people assisted by the preparers compared to a normal year. As a result, many low-income files may not be able to make an appointment for tax assistance by April 15.

We are advocating that Congress and the Senate ask the IRS to extend the deadline. The tax season actually started about a month later than usual. And the idea of keeping the deadline at April 15th and COVID being a big piece of the picture doesn’t make sense to me. There are many, many fewer VITA sites, there are fewer volunteers. There are fewer AARP free tax sites,” Terry Reed said.

For those who complete the process they’re grateful for the assistance.

VITA isn’t the only free tax assistance program affected by the pandemic in East Tennessee. AARP reports fewer volunteers and fewer sites as well. And if you’ve used the free service from the IRS in the past, you have to sign up for an appointment with them and there is no walk-in service.