COVID-19 made almost everything worse in the tax business, but almost everything was already bad, practitioners said about the professional burnout that’s driven some to consider quitting over the last two years.
The whole world is stressed by the pandemic, and U.S. workers more than the rest, according to a June worldwide workplace poll by Gallup. And a March survey by the job search website Indeed found that two-thirds of respondents believed the pandemic had worsened employee burnout.
The term “burnout” isn’t defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, but it is generally agreed in the occupational sense to mean a state of chronic work-related stress. After two extended filing seasons; years of deep, complicated, and too-often late or retroactive tax legislation; severely degraded IRS services; angry and confused clients — not to mention a worldwide virus and economic shutdown and restart — tax professionals can be forgiven for some moments of burnout.
Enrolled agent Kristin A. Roberts of the Roberts Group said she found herself snappish and turning inward as COVID lockdowns and interpersonal restrictions spread. “I don’t think I have heard from any of my colleagues who are not burned out,” she noted.
After “by far the craziest” two years in his 30-year tax career, David Weinstein, an enrolled agent in Connecticut, said the IRS’s pandemic-inspired decision to extend the 2021 filing season to May 15 pushed him to the brink of quitting the tax business altogether. “I’m 63, and I just can’t deal with that anymore,” he said.
Some rejected the term “burnout,” while recognizing the intense stress of the last 18 months. “If we overuse [the term], we don’t make it as important as it is,” said Jan Lewis, chair of the American Institute of CPAs’ Tax Executive Committee.
Lewis gave Tax Notes one of the best definitions of burnout offered by the tax professionals interviewed. “We don’t feel like we have control anymore,” Lewis said. “It’s not that the work is overwhelming, because it is. . . . It is just the absolute uncertainty and helplessness and not feeling in control of what we do every day.”
Frying Pan …
“The issue is, the IRS is not doing its job,” said Martha A. Nest of Westview Tax Services. “If the IRS won’t do their job, I can’t do my job.”
From incorrect notices to long waits on the practitioner priority hotline, to poorly trained phone assisters, to missing or delayed refunds and economic impact payments, tax pros primarily blamed the IRS for what many called an inadequate response.
Phone assisters aren’t trained to handle questions about new laws such as the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (P.L. 117-2), Lewis observed, in part because the IRS only issued guidance for the March law in June.
Too often, phone assisters themselves appear to be overwhelmed, Lewis added. She said she called the IRS priority line 26 times about one case before someone answered. It took 48 minutes to resolve that case, and then she was disconnected when asking about another case, Lewis recalled. Clients don’t like being billed for waiting time, she said.
Several tax pros rejected IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig’s claims that mail and tax return backlogs have been cleared. Enrolled agent Twila Midwood of Advanced Tax Centre Inc. said she and her colleagues in Florida have been inundated with clients whose economic impact payments and tax refunds have been delayed. Although each case can sometimes be resolved in minutes, the hours that those minutes add up to are frequently pro bono, she added.
... Meet Fire
Congress came in for its dose of criticism, not just for its handling of pandemic tax legislation, but for its yearslong record of leaning on the tax profession to do what practitioners say is Congress’s job.
When Congress hands down confusing or incomplete legislation to an underfunded and overworked IRS to interpret and enforce among taxpayers and practitioners, “what does that do except increase the stress level of my clients, which in turn increases my stress level,” Nest said.
Retroactive changes in ARPA, such as exempting the first $10,200 of unemployment compensation from federal income tax and the computations involved, added enormously to the confusion this spring, said Marilyn Meredith of Meredith Tax Service. Her staff opted to prepare the returns as best they could but held off on filing many of them until the pandemic dust settled.
Congress’s willingness to change tax provisions in the middle of a filing season and have them apply retroactively has Midwood spooked about what the Biden administration might try next.
Midwood said she has begun having “serious talks with quite a few clients” about some proposals, like President Biden’s plan to retroactively raise the capital gains tax rate. “We’re having those discussions now where we never had to in the past,” she said.
Lewis warned, “It seems that tax business is being used now to accomplish other goals of Congress.” Social policy goals such as reducing child poverty through payment of advance child tax credits through the IRS are worthy in the short term, she said, “but it’s going to cause a lot of grief next year when [taxpayers] have to pay it back.”
Tax professionals used various coping mechanisms to endure the health scare and consequent social limitations that were the prime experiences of most people.
“Quite often, I felt like that’s it, I’m going to quit, I’m going to retire,” Weinstein said. But friends and clients talked him out of it. Getting together with similarly situated accountants to commiserate helped a lot, he added.
“My staff heard me say multiple times, ‘Welcome to Walmart sounds really good right about now,’” Midwood said, adding that she and her staff gather periodically to vent, and that she reorganized her workload to have more Sundays off.
Trade associations are also providing stress-related services.
Midwood said her membership in the National Association of Enrolled Agents proved invaluable, both through its online member forums and educational webinars. “I don’t know of a tax pro who could’ve gotten through this season without outside resources,” she said.
The AICPA’s Tax Executive Committee plans to start a task force in August that will explore CPA experiences and challenges during the pandemic, “which has to include mental health,” Lewis said.
Jessica L. Jeane of the National Society of Accountants said her group plans to soon provide virtual roundtables in which tax pros discuss current events and offer advice and encouragement.
Lorie McCann of National Treasury Employees Union chapter 10 in Chicago said she touts the IRS’s own employee assistance program to members at tax agency town halls, union group meetings, and face-to-face discussions with frontline Taxpayer Advocate Service workers she represents.
The IRS noted in an August 6 statement that the commissioner this year has conducted 19 of his new “Talk Story” meetings with more than 1,000 randomly selected agency employees, in addition to the hundreds of town halls he has attended since the pandemic began.
Whatever level of stress, overwork, or burnout individual tax professionals are feeling, few said they were getting out now. “I’m not there yet,” Midwood said. But she echoed the sentiment of many when saying, “If we have another year like this year, it’ll be a strong consideration.”