Marty Thompson is a long-time RSVP* volunteer. Before the pandemic-related closures this year, Marty volunteered for five different programs, including serving for at least a decade as an RSVP Ambassador. Ambassadors represent RSVP in the community at fairs and other events as well as give input into the direction of the RSVP program.
When the pandemic hit the US in March, all of these opportunities either temporarily stopped or went online – and United Way of King County (UWKC) Free Tax Preparation Campaign, which Marty has volunteered with in person for more than 10 years, went virtual. It was fortunate that the IRS was already sponsoring a pilot program for online tax prep that had been created to fill a previously identified need.
UWKC Free Tax Prep, an IRS-certified Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, has been going since 2003. Marty explains, “We just had people come into the sites, fill out our form, and give us their tax information. Then we’d sit down with them and do their taxes. There’s a requirement that they have less than $66k in annual income. When we were in person, United Way had sites all over King County. I believe there were around 30. They were at places like libraries, community centers, Solid Ground, Goodwill, El Centro de la Raza, Hopelink, and colleges.”
The sites all had different hours. The downtown library is the largest, and it operated from noon-8pm. It was open every day, with fewer hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Some sites were open evenings only – and most, specific days only. Some had more foreign-language help than others. “For example, El Centro de la Raza was heavily Spanish, but we did Spanish returns at the downtown library, too. We had a couple of people who spoke enough Spanish to do a return. And recently, I’ve used a Spanish translation service for a number of quality reviews, which involves calling the taxpayer before finalizing the return. With the virtual program where another language is involved, often it means getting a relative who can translate.”
When an in-person service goes virtual
In March, UWKC had to close their sites, so they no longer had temporary paid positions to fill, such as tax site managers. Marty says, “The program was on schedule to complete 20,000 tax returns at the sites, and they’d only done 10,000 by the time things shut down. So, half of the expected number of clients hadn’t come in yet.”
The UWKC tax team brainstormed what to do when things shut down and thought they could help people file taxes themselves online, so they set up a hotline to essentially help people do it themselves. That was Marty’s original involvement.
“But then,” he says, “United Way came across a nonprofit in San Francisco called Code for America that’s been around for about 10 years with a goal of helping low-income earners get assistance with government programs. This year, with the purpose of reaching out to more people who were unable to get their taxes done for free, they started a pilot program to work with people over the internet to get their taxes done.”
Get Your Refund online program launches
Earned-income tax credits (EITC) is the largest government program second only to food stamps for getting assistance to low-income families and individuals; there are currently over $10 billion in unclaimed EITC. Homebound people and rural populations may have greater challenges claiming those credits, because they can neither get to VITA sites for free assistance nor afford other professional help. To get more of these credits claimed and increase access to professional tax help, Code for America launched the online pilot Get Your Refund in 2020.
Initially, the pilot began with VITA programs in four states: Georgia, California, Colorado, and Arizona. UWKC was considering how to proceed with its own tax program when it joined with Get Your Refund (in addition to phone assistance with self-service options). It took two weeks for everything to get up and running, including training UWKC site managers. About 50 other programs across the nation subsequently joined Get Your Refund – so while it is still technically a pilot, it has become much more than that.
“You can do it from the comfort of your own home. You don’t have to go in and wait for a volunteer to assist you.” ~Marty Thompson, RSVP Tax Guru
Get Your Refund involves the same support as coming into a site, except it’s all online. “You can do it from the comfort of your own home,” Marty says. “You don’t have to go in and wait for a volunteer to assist you. It takes a couple of weeks to go through the whole process because we have to substitute the onsite help with virtual help. So, the tax preparer has to look at all your documents that you upload to a VITA site by taking photos of your documents with your phone.”
Get Your Refund assigns taxpayers VITA sites based on their zip codes. UWKC serves the entire state of Washington. “One thing they had phone volunteers like me start doing when United Way decided to participate … was to offer that service as an alternative to people doing it themselves. We direct people to the Get Your Refund website, have people go through the process, and someone … working from home would be doing your taxes on a computer just as if they were sitting right next to you. Some people were a little skittish about the technology at first, but they found it was actually pretty simple – not that involved – and their taxes were done for them. Also, help is available by phone or chat if people need it.”
Marty got involved more heavily in Get Your Refund in June as the extended July 15 filing deadline approached and there became a need to clear out the bottleneck of quality reviews. He’s spent over 300 hours volunteering with the tax program in the last five months or so. Around half of those were in the month before July 15.
“You can do this any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week if you want,” which was a great opportunity for Marty as he had previously volunteered about 120 hours a month with various programs that all shut down in March. “The only time you have to have contact with people is when you … call the taxpayer and interview them, which happens in the beginning of their tax return and then at the end for quality review when you go over the actual return with them. Most of the time, you have to contact them more than once when preparing their return after the initial interview, but that’s done virtually by email or text, which is the way you upload all your documents to UWKC through Get Your Refund.
Quality reviews ensure all ducks are in order
“Essentially, the quality reviewer is a second set of eyeballs looking at what was done. If we need more information from them, we just send them a link to their phone or email, … and they can instantaneously upload whatever documents we’re missing. So Get Your Refund puts together a ticket for each one of these taxpayers that wants assistance, and the ticket accumulates all of their documents and information including the communication back and forth and internally, [and] the internal communication between volunteers and UWKC staff. So there’s communication through the file and communication with the taxpayer.”
Because Washington has no state income tax, UWKC Get Your Refund volunteers can complete a tax return for a person in any of the seven states that require federal taxes only. “I’ve quality reviewed a tax return from someone in Tennessee, for example,” Marty says. “I’m not sure how often Get Your Refund makes out-of-state assignments, but it would not be possible for someone in Washington to fully complete a tax return for someone in Oregon, for example, where there is also a state income tax return involved.”
“Some people were a little skittish about the technology at first, but they found it was actually pretty simple – not that involved – and their taxes were done for them. Also, help is available by phone or chat if people need it.” ~Marty Thompson, RSVP Tax Guru
After quality review, the return gets sent to the taxpayer to review and sign electronically through DocuSign software. The volunteer confirms the taxpayer understands they are fully responsible for this return and the information contained in it. If the taxpayer approves and signs it, it will pop back up in the volunteer’s queue as signed and then is electronically filed at no charge.
“The only reason the taxpayer would have to file it themselves would be if the IRS computer system can’t accept it electronically for whatever reason. Paper filing is not recommended as there is a delay, especially now with the IRS understaffed because of COVID-19, and we usually can find the errors if a return gets rejected and refile it electronically. We know within 15 minutes, typically, if a return is accepted or not.” The taxpayer’s bank information gets thoroughly checked at the beginning and end of the process. Get Your Refund volunteers request photos of checks to reduce errors and maximize the speed with which taxpayers can receive their refunds through direct deposit.
Marty was brought in to help with quality reviews because that’s where the most support was needed, but as a tax volunteer, he’s required by the IRS to be a certified tax preparer. To prepare taxes through UWKC, you have to get training and pass the IRS test; these requirements are the same whether you volunteer in person or at home. Training takes place in December for the following year, and volunteer recruitment begins the first of October.
Tax prep volunteers still needed!
UWKC has over a thousand tax preparers. “If you’ve got any math or financial experience or knowledge or even just interest,” Marty says, “it’s a great program. But you can check it out first. If you go and get the training, and you don’t feel it’s a fit, you don’t have to proceed.” Marty loves doing taxes. “It’s fun, challenging, and very interesting. I like being on site where you actually get to meet and talk with a lot of people. That’s the most fun for me. Right now, we’re in a different wrinkle. I could see myself continuing this, though, even if I go back on site as well when we can.”
But volunteers are still able to bounce stuff off each other, even remotely. They use a Slack Channel, an online messaging service that facilitates one-to-one or group conversations via chat boards, to stay in touch with other members of their tax teams. And, just as in person, volunteers have to sign a confidentiality agreement that they will not disclose anything they discover in the process. “It’s not instant communication, though. There’s a lag when we’re not in person. You have to wait for messages and replies; in person, you could just walk up and have a conversation,” Marty says. There’s a lag in questions to taxpayers, too, since they’re not in person either. “But we do have more people available to us virtually because of the flexibility, and there are people who have been doing this a long time as well as having varied expertise.”
In addition to the program’s confidentiality, after the October 15 deadline, all files get destroyed. The only documents kept on file are the returns themselves, which are contained in the tax preparation software.
Get Your Refund is a great at-home opportunity for folks who want a flexible at-home position and have an inclination toward math or finance. The program is not going to end when the Coronavirus risk passes. And as of early September 2020, Marty still worked on this “because we still have tax returns coming in [October 15 was the extension deadline], though a lot fewer now.” Check out UWKC’s Remote Tax Preparation Specialist volunteer opportunity if you’re interested in learning more!
Questions? Contact RSVP Coordinator Megan Wildhood at email@example.com or 206.694.6786.