When RealSense sites closed in March due to COVID-19, it didn’t stop the work of United Way of Northeast Florida’s financial stability experts to change lives.
For 17 years, United Way’s RealSense coalition, powered by hundreds of community volunteers, has provided free income tax assistance to hard-working families across the Northeast Florida’s five-county region. In a typical tax season, RealSense assists more than 23,000 families to ensure they have high-quality tax preparation assistance in order to help them save their hard-earned money and move toward financial security.
This tax season, however, was very different. COVID-19 has burdened everyone in Northeast Florida over the past several months. Lost wages for families already struggling. Business slowdowns and closures. Uncertainty and unforeseen obstacles with schools reopening. And then, of course, the spread of the virus itself, devastating families, challenging our local health-care system and exacerbating mental stress. All of this, moreover, is taking place while America society as a whole is in the midst of renewed social unrest surrounding racial equity and injustices.
Despite these extraordinarily stressful times, the RealSense team had work to do. While the deadline to file federal income taxes was extended to July 15, hardworking families remained in need of tax-assistance services that could save them life-sustaining dollars to use on food, rent, utilities and other immediate needs; save for long-term; or simply get by in the wake of our new normal.
In early March, RealSense discontinued in-person operations as a result of COVID-19 precautions. The team immediately went to work finding ways to promote the online tax-filing resource, MyFreeTaxes.com, through accessible digital channels. The team also ensured questions about tax-filing were answered in a timely fashion by United Way 211, their website, and emails and phone calls received by RealSense staff.
Also during this two-month tax-site closure, RealSense was busy redesigning its operational model to be ready as soon as word was given that tax sites could re-open. They sourced various personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and cleaning supplies. They designed a new “drop-off system,” which involved a filer securely dropping off their tax documents for filing and then picking them up after their return was prepared and ready for signing. RealSense also worked closely with community partners to assess site availability and volunteers’ comfort levels.
At last, RealSense was able to re-open for the four weeks prior to July 15. In the team’s “new normal” work environment, they quickly adapted to new ways of service delivery in order to help the community.
The first priority of returning to the tax sites was to ensure that volunteers and clients were safe. RealSense staff secured all the aforementioned PPE to distribute to each of the tax locations re-opening as well as instituted strict processes to ensure everyone’s safety, including the “drop-off system.”
The community welcomed this re-opening, and during those four weeks, more than 2,200 families used RealSense’s free services to file their federal tax returns. Without the re-opening, these families would have been forced to use a costly commercial tax service or incur late-filing penalties with the IRS.
Despite all the uncertainty this year, RealSense volunteers rose to the challenge and managed to assist 17,189 families total with their tax returns this year, putting over $23 million back into the pockets of these hardworking families. This means more than 17,000 families in Northeast Florida not only received the refund they deserve and tax breaks they qualified for – including the Earned Income Tax Credit – they also each saved hundreds of dollars. This can be life-changing savings any year but even more so in this financial fallout of COVID-19.
For more information on RealSense, including other services they offer family’s seeking financial stability, visit unitedwaynefl.org/realsense or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To invest in United Way’s financial stability work, including RealSense, please email email@example.com.
United Way of Northeast Florida’s RealSense financial stability initiative is just one of many your support of United Way makes possible. Because of the generosity of thousands of donors, volunteers and community partners, United Way is able to change hundreds of thousands of lives every year. To learn about more ways to get involved, visit unitedwaynefl.org.