The longest government shutdown in history could not have come at a worse time for the IRS, the National Taxpayer Advocate has told Congress.
The IRS was heading into its first filing season under the massive new tax law when the federal government partially closed.
Among the changes was the raising of the standard deduction for married couples to $24,000 from $13,000, and to $12,000 for individuals, from $6,500. Personal exemptions were also eliminated.
"It was the biggest change in 30 years," said Gary Milkwick, chief product officer at 1800Accountant.com, a New York-based tax preparation and consulting firm.
By the time the government reopened in late January, the agency had more than 5 million pieces of mail that had not been processed and 87,000 amended returns waiting to be handled, the report said. The National Taxpayer Advocate is an independent office within the IRS.
At the start of filing season the IRS answered 48 percent of its calls, and the average wait time was 17 minutes. During the same period last year, the IRS answered 86 percent of calls and the average wait time was about four minutes.
In the first week after the IRS reopened, more than 93 percent of taxpayers calling to make payment arrangements with the government were still unable to reach a person, the report said.
"It's going to take them awhile to get back to speed," said Cindy Hockenberry, director of tax research and government relations at the National Association of Tax Professionals.
Adding to the problems are the outdated computers and technology the IRS has been left with due to a lack of funding, the report from the taxpayer advocate also says. Some of the systems have not been replaced in 25 years.
A spokesperson for the IRS said filing season was going smoothly. "Nine out of 10 refunds will still be issued in less than 21 days when the taxpayer uses e-file with direct deposit," he said.
Taxpayers might be taking their time this year, experts say.
The IRS issued necessary guidance around the new code, including how deductions work for people who rent out their property, as recently as last month, Milkwick said.
"We're encouraging people to file extensions more often than in the past," he said.
Taxpayers who request an extension don't have to file their taxes until Oct. 15. However, they'll still have to estimate their liability and send in what they owe by the regular April 15 deadline.
With another possible shutdown just days away, about 57 percent of the agency's employees will be designated as "exempt" during the current filing season if the government closes again, according to the IRS contingency plan.
Wondering where your refund is? You can check its status on the IRS website.