• July 13, 2021

How the UMBC Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program Survived the Pandemic – and Came Back Stronger

Sarah Knapp
  • by Sarah Knapp

Persistence and flexibility are two life skills that can help you get through a pandemic. Just ask Trisha Wells, Assistant Vice Provost for Administration and Finance at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Wells serves as co-chair of Financial Smarts @ UMBC and organizer of the UMBC Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program – a service that hundreds of community members in the greater Baltimore area rely on each tax season. But when COVID-19 hit, the UMBC VITA program faced an uncertain future.

A win-win program for community members and students.

VITA is an IRS-sponsored program in which volunteers provide free state and federal tax preparation assistance to individuals and families earning less than $58,000 per year, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English speakers. 

Now in its sixth year, the UMBC VITA program is made possible by volunteers, the majority of whom are UMBC students participating in Financial Smarts @ UMBC. Students complete 15 hours of intensive training and pass an IRS-mandated test before working with clients during their spring semester.

According to Wells, the UMBC VITA program delivers transformative experiences to students. In addition to broadening students’ financial literacy skills, the program helps them gain valuable soft/SEL skills through interactions with clients. Students can later apply these skills in their future careers.

The UMBC VITA program typically serves Baltimore families who earn an income of around $28,000. Many of them are single parents who drive for Lyft, Uber, and Postmates, so they need to file as independent contractors – which can make their tax returns more complicated. 

“We’re helping this population get their taxes done and get them done right without any cost,” says Wells. “What’s more, in many cases they qualify for tax refunds like the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.”

Federal tax refunds can help these folks pay their bills and start saving for the future: “The hope is that after using VITA for a few years, they no longer qualify for our program because they’re making more than the threshold,” says Wells. This financial boost can have a ripple effect in communities.

Prior to the pandemic, the UMBC VITA program operated on campus. “In ‘normal’ times, we would typically have about 60 volunteers and we would do around 500 tax returns for clients in the greater Baltimore area,” says Wells.

In 2020, the UMBC VITA program had to shut down mid-season due to COVID-19. It was around the time when UMBC was rolling out its campus-wide deployment of Propeller’s Virtual Lab. The deployment was part of an initiative to provide UMBC students with access to technology without needing to be tethered to the institution’s computer lab.

Indeed, the pandemic prompted UMBC to make many significant changes to the way it operated. When UMBC was faced with the problem of how to resume the VITA program in a way that didn’t expose its volunteers or community members to COVID-19, moving to a remote model appeared to be the only option. But was it possible, or safe, from a security standpoint?

“My fear with going virtual was that we would have data breaches,” says Wells. “Our clients are giving us their Social Security number, their home address, and their birthdate – so an identity theft could easily happen with the information that’s on their tax return.”

With the help of the UMBC Division of Information Technology (DoIT), Wells and other UMBC leaders pooled together the resources needed to relaunch the UMBC VITA program in a secure virtual environment.

“DoIT had experience deploying Webex, DocuSign, and other essential tools. Working with Propeller, we were able to provision a secure virtual desktop environment that allowed us to provide the tax prep service using a virtual desktop as securely as in the past.”

Facing setbacks and celebrating successes.

Following the complete shutdown of operations halfway through the 2020 tax season, the UMBC VITA program successfully pivoted from in-person to 100% remote in time to be fully operational for the 2021 tax season. By the May 2021 tax deadline, Wells and 39 volunteers had prepared tax returns for 244 community members. Remarkably, all of this was accomplished in a tax year that was challenging not only due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, but by tax law changes that took place in February and March. Unfortunately, as a result of the tax changes, the UMBC VITA program had to retrain volunteers and redo dozens of tax returns. But that wasn’t the only snag they encountered.

In the past, UMBC VITA program volunteers sat down with clients, side-by-side at a computer to review paperwork. Flipping that to a remote scenario meant that most clients needed to download and engage with technology they had never used before.

“There were instances where it would take the better part of an hour to help the client configure Webex, or we would be helping an 82-year-old great-grandmother download an app on her phone,” says Wells.

These were the times when Wells and program volunteers needed to draw on their inner reserves of persistence and flexibility.

“Moving to a virtual environment was definitely a challenge, especially in terms of communication between volunteers and clients at the tax site,” says Nivi Mariappan, a UMBC senior and UMBC VITA program volunteer. “However, we still managed to make a positive impact on the community this semester,” she explains. “ I’m glad I got to be a part of that achievement. Volunteering this spring helped me stay connected to UMBC [and the] surrounding community, despite being at home.”

“In the end, our volunteers worked 1,722 hours, and each tax return took an average of seven hours to complete,” says Wells. “And, considering the average cost of  tax return prepcosts $250 in the Baltimore area, we saved the community approximately $61,000 in tax-prep fees!” 

Wells emphasizes that none of this would have been possible without the support of UMBC VITA program funding partners JPMorgan Chase & Co. and PNC Bank. In addition, the CASH Campaign of Maryland, a nonprofit group dedicated to the economic advancement of low-to-moderate income individuals and families in Baltimore and across Maryland, provided robust training materials and fielded the UMBC crew’s questions at any time of the day, even on weekends.   

Reflections on persistence, flexibility, and gratitude.

When the UMBC VITA program called a wrap on the 2021 tax season, Wells and her fellow volunteers breathed a collective sigh of relief. Reimagining the program in the midst of the pandemic had been a formidable challenge – one they weren’t always certain they could overcome. 

Wells extended her gratitude to the volunteers and leadership team for their persistence and flexibility. She also shared this heartfelt note of thanks from a client:

I would like to thank you and your colleagues one more time for the great job you did regarding my tax return. The amount of time you spent and the attention you paid to give your clients maximum returns and also the easiness of accessibility to you through email and other online features makes me rate your services FIVE-STAR. I wish I were able to leave a comment and ranking of your services for the public (if there is any, please let me know).
Eric V.

This is just one of many testimonials by grateful clients who are on better financial footing thanks to the UMBC VITA program.

Looking ahead: emerging stronger with a hybrid model to extend outreach.

By adapting to the “new normal” of the pandemic and deploying the right technologies, the UMBC VITA program rapidly reconfigured its delivery model from an in-person to a remote format. Best of all, it survived the crisis and emerged stronger. The UMBC VITA program is now charting a new, more adaptive course centered on the client experience. 

In 2022, the plan is for the UMBC VITA program to offer a hybrid model with a blend of in-person and remote tax preparation services to extend its outreach in the community.

“It’s wonderful to be able to offer a hybrid model going forward, because during the pandemic, we discovered that some of our clients were very tech savvy,” says Wells. “The remote setup was easy for them, and they liked not having to drive to our site. And, some of our volunteers had schedule conflicts and could only volunteer virtually, so there is a niche for which virtual tax prep is an excellent fit. With a hybrid model, people can choose which style is best for them.”

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