Tax time woes worse for thousands without technology

Thousands of people attempting to do their income tax returns this year are struggling with the increased move to online filing at the same time the Canada Revenue Agency has cut face-to-face service across the country.

Volunteer groups say thousands still don't have easy online access

Stewart Smith is one of thousands of low-income people in Regina who rely on a volunteer run program to help with filing his taxes electronically. (CBC )

Thousands of people attempting to do their income tax returns this year are struggling with the increased move to online filing at the same time the Canada Revenue Agency has cut face-to-face service across the country.

"It sucks, you know? Like, give the senior citizens a break," Gerry Parenteau, 68, told CBC News about his frustration with technology. "It's so difficult that you can't even do it [file online]. ... My tech skills are zero. I'm too old. I can't get all this new stuff."

Parenteau is one of thousands of people relying on the Saskatoon Food Bank's free Community Volunteer Income Tax Program this year.

Linda Guedo runs the free Community Volunteer Income Tax Program at the Saskatoon Food Bank. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC)

That program, which has been around for about 20 years, helps low-income people to file their tax returns. The volunteers also have access to computers and can electronically file.

The Food Bank's Linda Guedo runs the program through its learning centre. She says this year, they can not keep up with the demand for help.

"Our phone calls are up about 40 per cent over last year. So it's very difficult for us to keep up," Guedo said.

Volunteers overwhelmed by need

Guedo, who works from a corner desk in lobby of the centre, said they usually help about 3,000 people file income tax every year in Saskatoon, but this year there's a significantly larger demand and they are having to turn people away.

The reasons, she said, are varied and include:

  • Clients don't own computers or have access to a secure internet connection.
  • Many are immigrants with limited English or French and struggle with telephone support.
  • The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has closed its offices where people could get face-to-face advice and information or pick up a printed form.

"The difficulty this year is that people are somewhat confused over the closure of the [CRA's] counter service. People are used to going in there and being able to ask questions, get forms, that sort of thing," Guedo explained. "So, we are getting a lot of people coming in saying 'What do we do? We don't know what to do because the office is closed'."

Canada's income tax system, which can baffle even the most seasoned tax lawyer, can be overwhelming to new Canadians, like Shaima Serwary.

Shaima Serwary from Afghanistan says English is her third language and filing taxes is a challenge. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC)

Serwary immigrated to Saskatoon from Afghanistan and English is her third language. She said that before she found the free tax service at the Saskatoon Food Bank, she was lost when it came time to file taxes.

"Because you know, we don't know about Canada, especially tax. It is very hard," Serwary said.

Other volunteer programs are encountering the same issues.

Nathalie Johnstone (second from left) with three University of Saskatchewan business students who are volunteering to help people file their income taxes. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC)

Nathalie Johnstone runs a volunteer tax-support program through the University of Saskatchewan's Edwards School of Business. That long-running program primarily helps senior citizens file their taxes.

"My phone calls [for help] have probably increased about 35 per cent this year," Johnston said. "Unfortunately we just don't have enough people to help them out. I've turned away [about] 12 seniors' homes."

CRA says filing taxes online is easier

Canada Revenue Agency said the decision to close its tax service offices, which took effect Oct. 1, 2013, followed growing online-service trends.

A spokesman for the agency told CBC News that after reviewing the 2013 tax season, they believed that most of the services they were providing over-the-counter could be offered more easily, quickly and economically, online.

Randy Westerman said their toll-free number, 1-800-959 8281, should help most people with most of their questions.

Some groups, which also provide volunteer support, note that closing CRA offices was not entirely bad.

Val Wiks coordinates the Salvation Army's volunteer tax service in Regina. She told CBC News that closing the CRA's offices made sense because its counter staff didn't file tax returns anyway.

A volunteer working at the Salvation Army in Regina helps a couple from Bhutan with their taxes. (CBC)

""I think it streamlined the situation," she said, noting that in many cases people would go to a CRA office only to find the help they wanted wasn't available. "You sit and you wait, and sometimes you would wait for a couple hours for somebody to see you to tell you that they're not going to do your taxes, they're just going to give you information."

Wiks added that the CRA does support volunteer programs, across the country, with screening and training.

Income tax filing quick facts:

  • Taxpayers have until midnight on May 5, 2014, to file their 2013 T1 income tax and benefit return and to pay any balance owing.
  • By filing online and using direct deposit, taxpayers could have their refund in as little as eight days.
  • As of Mar. 24 2014, 65% of taxpayers getting a refund received it by direct deposit. So far, the average refund amount is $1,619.11.
  • On March 24, 2014, the number of online submissions processed on the CRA website hit a seasonal high-to-date of at 1,763 per minute.

With files from CBC's Bonnie Allen and Madeline Kotzer


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