In March 2020, an already overburdened Internal Revenue Service was given the task of quickly distributing hundreds of billions of dollars in economic relief payments to tens of millions of people during the busy tax season even as the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the agency’s employees to work remotely.
Despite these and other hurdles, an IRS team led by Virginia Busby, Dianne Garibotto and Camille Privett delivered $350 billion in payments to 160 million people. More than half of these funds were distributed within two weeks of Congress enacting the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
The IRS team later managed the disbursement of another $250 billion in payments to 159 million eligible people under a second 2020 relief package.
“The grit they showed to take the legislation, interpret it and do the work that was necessary to get those payments out quickly was impressive,” said Dietra Grant, the IRS Customer Account Services director. “They were able to get money in the hands for individuals who needed it to pay rent and to pay for food.”
The three leaders of the IRS Economic Impact Payment team oversaw a wide range of activity, including building partnerships with agencies across the government, analyzing the pertinent sections of the coronavirus relief laws, developing the requirements necessary to disburse the money and identifying the millions of eligible people.
They also worked to ensure the computer systems were properly programmed and that the delivery systems would accurately wire the economic relief payments into individual bank accounts or send checks to the homes of those who were eligible.
“They orchestrated a symphony and led the path forward,” said Kenneth Corbin, the commissioner of the IRS Wage & Investment Division. “They were nimble and made it work despite the challenges, always displaying logic and thoughtfulness.”
In addition to the pandemic challenges and the magnitude of having to distribute so much money in such a short time, the trio had to fight headwinds caused by IRS budget cuts of about 20% during the past decade along with sizable staff reductions, aging technology and stress on customer services.
As part of the 2020 payment distribution process, for example, the team had to develop a way to communicate with eligible recipients about what payments they would receive, and when and how they would receive them.
Ordinarily, the tax agency would set up phone banks to handle inquiries, a difficult challenge even in ordinary times given the staffing shortages. But with IRS facilities shut down, the task was even harder since there were no employees to recruit to answer phone lines, respond to citizen questions or gather information about where to send payments.
“Not everyone has their direct deposit information filed with their tax returns,” Garibotto said. ‘We knew we had to take really aggressive, fast moving steps to allow people to provide their direct deposit information.”
As a result, the team developed a “Get My Payment” application that went up on the IRS website, IRS.gov. Those eligible for relief funding could go online to check the status of their payment and enter their banking information to receive money directly into their bank accounts.
Finding everyone who was supposed to receive a check was an additional challenge. The IRS was accustomed to sending payments to taxpayers, but had no way to communicate with non-filers.
“We recognized early on that there would be non-filers, people who don’t have a filing requirement but who are qualified to get a payment,” Busby said. “So we created a way for people to ‘raise their hand.’”
That solution was a portal allowing individuals who had not filed or had not recently filed a tax return to enter the IRS’ non-filer tool and provide the agency with enough information to send them their payment if they were qualified.
“By the time we got this legislation, it was something that needed to be done yesterday,” Privett said. “We had to think outside the box and put some innovative processes in place.”
Corbin said that Busby, who lives in Georgia, handled the technical issues related to the tax law. He said Garibotto, who lives in New Hampshire, handled customer service account issues, while Privett, who lives in Missouri, was the technical analyst who focused on the computer programming.
“These three women were able to coordinate everything remotely and come together as a team in a really remarkable way,” Corbin said.
David Alito, the deputy commissioner of the Wage & Investment Division, said federal workers often are viewed as being part of “a cold bureaucracy,” but noted that the team was compassionate and “recognized the importance and the necessity of assisting the public in a moment of need.”
“They knew people were hurting and they treated this job with a sense of urgency to help people get assistance during this time of crisis,” Alito said.