When the White House extended the federal tax filing deadline last month to July 15, Vince Nesline gave a shout. Not because he owes money to Uncle Sam, but because he was worried for the health of his colleagues at their Towson accounting firm.
“I’d been thinking, do I have to work my staff half to death with this coronavirus looming over us?” said Nesline, a partner in the firm of Stoy, Malone & Co. “We don’t need to be sleep-deprived, and weakening ourselves, with this virus out there. What a relief to move the [deadline] from April 15. Sure, the workload will shift to May and June, but we can recharge our batteries now and, maybe, not be as susceptible to the pandemic by then.”
As the typical tax time approaches, accountants are not buried under stacks of 1040s. But neither are they doodling on their desk pads. The extension, they say, has freed them to help clients navigate the maze of new grant and loan programs available to those whose businesses have been shuttered by the pandemic.
“People are worried about their businesses surviving and whether to keep or furlough employees once the relief package gets to them,” said Greg Horning, a director for SC&H Group of Cockeysville. “We’re not working any less hard, just different.”
Most states, including Maryland, have followed the federal government’s lead and deferred filing deadlines by three months. States that have not changed are creating headaches for tax preparers, said Jay Denburg of Denburg & Low of Baltimore.
Meanwhile, social distancing has made personal consults taboo, and CPAs agree that their repartee with clients has changed.
“Usually, this once-a-year meeting starts with a handshake or hug. Now it’s this dance you do, 6 feet apart,” said Steve Graber of Graber & Associates in Pikesville.
Certainly, hand-delivered financial folders are treated with care.
"For those who bring their taxes to our office, I see them through two doors,” Nesline said. “They hand off their envelope to a staffer wearing gloves, wave to us and say, ‘Thank you.’ I use gloves to leaf through their folders, too. How many times have you licked your fingers to turn a page?”
Now more than ever, clients send their data electronically, through a firm’s secure portal.
“We’ve long had the capability of working remotely, like during snowstorms,” Nesline said. “We correspond via emails and FaceTime — though answers to some tax issues are nuanced and best explained by a phone chat.”
Those phone calls are still laced with dry financial patter, accountants say, but more and more clients, while stuck at home, turn the tax talks into more casual chats.
“I have noticed that our conversations seem more expansive these days,” Horning said.
The amount of banter may be more a matter of money, Denburg said.
“Clients whose accountants charge a fixed fee are more likely to bend an ear than those being charged by [time],” he said. “But we’re sympathetic. We listen. We hand-hold.”
Much of this small talk is new to CPAs, they say.
“Social distancing comes easy for accountants because we are accountants,” Nesline said. “I mean, would you talk to us at a party unless you really had a question? Now [during the pandemic] we’re another live voice, sharing thoughts on everything.
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"It’s hard to believe that talking to one’s accountant is the highlight of their day.”
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At the same time, Horning said, the health crisis has allowed tax preparers to view one another in a less stodgy light.
“During staff meetings, through video chats, you see your co-workers in a completely different environment — like one seen wearing a polo shirt and pajama bottoms,” he said. “In our meeting this morning, one woman held her infant daughter while another had her yellow Lab on her lap.”
For accountants, who deal in facts and figures, the coronavirus pandemic seems almost a fantasy.
“We all feel like we’re living in a science fiction movie,” Graber said. “I’m waiting for Tom Cruise to fly by and save the day, and the director to say, ‘Take One — we’re done.’ ”