Tax preparers adjust to unusual season

By David J. Coehrs - [email protected]

Local tax professionals have experienced a different kind of tax season this year, and for two of them, frankly, it can’t end too soon.

Extended an additional two months to accommodate disruptions by the novel coronavirus pandemic, this season’s July 15 deadline is now fast approaching. Between the social distancing restrictions Jessica Lester has placed on her clients and people’s penchant for procrastinating, “This tax season seems like it’s a tax season that never ends,” she said.

The owner of Muszettie Tax & Accounting Services in Delta, Lester said about 35% of her roughly 200 individual and business clients delivered their tax information to her late this year, probably the result of the government extension. Some still haven’t turned theirs in.

“I’ve had a lot of people later than usual,” she said.

Adding to the different atmosphere is Lester’s quarantined service at her home office. She retrieves the paperwork from clients at their cars while wearing a mask. The clients wait in their vehicles while she prepares their returns. If she has questions she revisits their vehicles.

“It’s essentially a regular appointment. I just do it curbside,” Lester said.

Some clients have conducted the business by mail, others use an available app that allows them to upload their tax information and sign their documents via computer.

The coronavirus further complicated the process when the federal government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) this year offered assistance to small businesses affected by the pandemic. The Payment Protection Program Loan gave eligible businesses a lump sum equaling 2 1/2 times their usual monthly payroll for a 2 1/2-month period, which could be used for utility, rent, and mortgage interest payments. The Economic Income Disaster Loan offered small businesses a forgivable advance up to $10,000 and a maximum loan of up to $150,000. Both loans came with stipulations.

Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service made three payroll tax credits available.

Lester said the problem was that the SBA loan criteria was not clear initially, and information for both the loans and the tax credits seemed to change daily.

“It’s just not your normal tax season,” she said. “Once you feel like you had a grip on the credits and the loans something would change. So you had to reinvest time to learn them.”

And because the IRS is not working at full capacity during the pandemic some of her clients have seen a delay in receiving their refunds.

It’s been a dizzying process for Lester, adding to the typical chaos of tax season.

“Most people in the stay at home order…had all this time on their hands. I was busier during the stay at home order than (tax season) last year, and not necessarily with new clients,” she said. “It was just figuring out everything. Your head was spinning, that’s what it felt like. You’re constantly on a turntable. But now it’s starting to calm down.”

Brent Shea, the owner of H&R Block in Wauseon, saw a major slowdown in business mid-March, when people became fearful of the uncertainty associated with the coronavirus. His office is usually swamped with tax returns during that time, meaning long days and weekends. But this year he has cut back operations to 40 hours per week.

“It’s been a trickle since then,” Shea said. “We’ve been open throughout but with shorter hours. Only working 40 hours a week seems like part-time to me. To tax people, that’s strange.”

The pandemic has also changed the way business is done. The office is handling more returns on a remote or drop-off basis, and some clients upload their tax information to the company’s website or trade information through conference calls or Zoom meetings. Documents can be signed remotely.

“Just a handful have come in, but right now it’s sort of a last resort from an overall social distance thing,” Shea said. Clients who choose to do business face-to-face practice social distancing and staff members wear masks to collect their information at the front desk. Tax preparers will wear masks upon a client’s request.

People will typically wait in any given year until the last week or so to have their taxes prepared, he said. That procrastination has increased this year due to the extension.

“There was a lot of uncertainty. Every time there’s a major change it takes a lot of getting used to,” Shea said. He added, “Yes, it does feel like a long season.”

And he’s confident the coronavirus will prove long-lived enough to cause changes in the business again next tax season. “We’ll adjust to any that come our way,” he said. J. Coehrs | Fulton County Expositor

By David J. Coehrs

[email protected]

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.