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Why you may not have received your federal tax refund yet

The tax agency attributes the decline in customer service to understaffing caused by Congressional budget cuts and a hiring freeze.

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    The exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington. New data show that cash-strapped Americans anxious for tax refunds are increasingly turning to payment advances and prepaid cards when getting tax preparation help.
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If you haven't received your federal tax refund yet, you're not alone. 

The Internal Revenue Service says that continued budget cuts that have forced it to cut thousands of jobs, making it slower to process tax returns and issue refunds this year. The agency also says delays are caused by taxpayers filling later in the season.

As of April 3, some 99 million people, about two-thirds of America's taxpayers, had filed. That's down 0.8 percent from the same time last year, USA Today reports. But the number of returns processed so far is down 1.2 percent.

Those who have not filed have until Wednesday, April 15, to file a return or apply for a six-month extension.

The IRS’s budget of $10.9 billion is lowest since 2008. The agency has been open about the effects that the lower budget will have on the 2015 tax season, particularly the convenience and quality of the customer service. In a release encouraging taxpayers to avoid long lines and hold times by using the IRS's online tools, the agency says "limited resources" are behind the poorer service.

The cuts have resulted in significantly longer wait times on the phone and at service centers. Employees were able to answer only about 40 percent of the 115 million taxpayer calls received every year, according to the National Treasury Employees Union.

The IRS has been encouraging taxpayers to file electronically and look for the answers to their questions online instead of calling customer service. The initiative has had limited success, with visits to IRS.gov up by 11.7 percent this year. The agency has also stopped helping individuals prepare returns, instead only answering basic questions such as which forms to file.

Congress has justified the cuts to IRS funding due to management problems identified in 2013, including overspending on conferences and events, inappropriate videos and unnecessary scrutiny of applications from nonprofit political advocacy groups.

“We deliberately lowered the IRS funding to a level to make them think twice about what they were doing and why,” Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations subcommittee chairman, told IRS officials. “They don’t have a dime to spare on anything frivolous or foolhardy or even middling. The IRS should and must focus on the most important, the most egregious and the most in need.”

These cuts come with a hiring freeze that IRS workers say has made it difficult for the agency to improve its quality of service.

“The hiring freeze the IRS implemented to cope with reckless budget cuts imposed by Congress for five years in a row is . . . making it virtually impossible for the IRS to hire new workers to replace experienced and retiring employees,” National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley told the Washington Post. “The hiring freeze is discouraging to applicants with the skills and education the agency needs.”

The union is currently backing the $12.9 billion budget proposed by the Obama administration for the IRS in 2016, which would allow the agency to hire 3,000 more employees to answer phones and help with customer service issues.

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