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Coronavirus has derailed Miami’s volunteer tax preparers. They still want you to file as early as possible.

April 6, 2020

By Lautaro Grinspan

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks about the Florida unemployment rate via livestream from Tallahassee, Florida, on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

As the devastating economic ramifications of the coronavirus crisis come into sharper view, many families’ ability to promptly receive financial relief — including stimulus checks — will hinge on filing a 2019 tax return, experts say.

But for low-income families, getting free tax preparation assistance will be more difficult now than in previous years. Health concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak have disrupted the workflow of many of Miami-Dade’s volunteer tax preparers, prompting the outright closure of many free tax-filing sites.

“We are really concerned right now,” said Karla Bachmann, director of financial wellness services at Branches, the nonprofit that heads Miami’s coalition of free tax preparers. “We need to adapt on how we are providing services so that we can still provide services.”

In normal times, Miami Tax Pros — a group of 21 local organizations led by Branches — mobilizes more than 500 IRS-certified volunteer tax preparers across 44 tax preparation sites scattered around Miami-Dade County. As a result, around 12,000 families every year receive free tax-filing assistance, collectively saving around $3 million in preparation fees and securing over $10 million in tax refunds.

Now, many of the sites are closed, including those housed in public libraries and universities. Others, operated by local nonprofits and county-run community centers, are figuring out a way to provide tax services virtually.

But Bachmann said there are hurdles to providing this kind of financial assistance online. Many of the people who need help are recent immigrants who don’t speak English and may have limited access to the necessary digital tools.

“It’s very difficult to do virtual tax preparation because the people that we serve just don’t have the technology or the know-how to upload documents online, for instance,” she said. “Most sites have not figured out how to do it virtually. It’s actually very challenging and not an easy fix.”

At the moment, Branches is operating just two sites, in Florida City and in Lakeview, with a host of new precautions. Each site has dropped down to skeleton staff. Clients don’t come into the premises. Instead, they make appointments to drop off their paperwork through an open window or door at specific times.

“It’s almost like a drive-thru window,” said Bachmann.

Because only one family can visit per hour, each site is only handling about 10 appointments per day.

“The goal is to avoid having lots of families standing outside the office,” said Bachmann.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury announced it was extending the tax filing deadline to July. But that probably won’t be enough to compensate for limitations on the number of people who can receive help, Bachmann said.

An extension “doesn’t make any difference if we are unable to provide services,” she said.

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Community members in need of assistance from Miami Tax Pros, a coalition of volunteer tax preparers, drop off paperwork at a Florida City site. MIAMI TAX PROS

RELIEF THROUGH TAXES

As part of the recently passed, $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, the U.S. government will funnel a maximum of $1,200 to eligible taxpayers — that is, those who make less than $75,000 for single filers.

To determine eligibility, the IRS will look at 2018 tax returns, meaning taxpayers don’t technically have to take any action to receive their payments. If no 2018 tax return was filed, the IRS will look at 2019 tax returns, which have to be filed this year.

According to Bachmann, there are many reasons why taxpayers would want the IRS to consider their most recent set of tax returns.

First, for folks who’ve suffered income losses in fiscal year 2019 relative to fiscal year 2018, more recent tax returns are more likely to make them eligible for the maximum amount of stimulus money distributed by the government.

Second, for folks whose address or direct-deposit information has recently changed, filing 2019 taxes would ensure the IRS has up-to-date information on hand, making it more likely for the stimulus money to arrive in a timely manner.

“Doing 2019 taxes is the best way, the fastest way for you to make sure you get your check,” said Bachmann.

At a time when many in South Florida are losing jobs and feeling the economic crunch from the coronavirus crisis, filing taxes as soon as possible — regardless of the extended deadline — will also give families faster access to other types of relief. That includes tax refunds as well as any tax credits that filers are eligible for, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), both of which have been effective in helping lift low-income Americans above the poverty line.

“The Child Tax Credit and the EITC, that’s cash that these families really need right now,” said Gretchen Beesing, CEO of Catalyst Miami, a local nonprofit that also provides personal finance help. “But many need in-person assistance” to file their taxes.

To make an appointment at the Branches sites still operating, people can call 305-688-3551 (extension 2008). The free help is available to people who make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities and taxpayers who speak limited English.

According to the United Way Center for Financial Stability, about 80 percent of tax filers in MIami-Dade qualify for assistance.

This story originally appeared in the  Miami Herald