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COVID-19: IRS Implemented Tax Relief for Employers Quickly, but Could Strengthen Its Compliance Efforts

GAO-22-104280 Published: May 17, 2022. Publicly Released: May 17, 2022.
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Fast Facts

In response to COVID-19, Congress gave tax breaks to employers for providing paid sick and family leave and retaining employees. These provisions will result in about $237.8 billion in foregone revenue for FYs 2021-2031, Congress estimates.

This report examines the IRS's implementation of these provisions, how many employers used them, and more. For example, about 1.5 million employers claimed $9.8 billion in tax credits for 2020 to help with the costs of paid leave. We made 5 recommendations to the IRS aimed at strengthening its reviews of tax credit claims.

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What GAO Found

Starting in March 2020, Congress passed several laws, including the CARES Act, to provide employers with tax relief in response to the economic burden brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Provisions in these laws established the paid sick and family leave credits (leave credits), the Employee Retention Credit (ERC), and payroll tax deferrals. IRS implemented these provisions while facing delays caused by facility closures and other challenges. As new laws were enacted, IRS continued to revise employment tax returns and guidance.

Leave credits and ERCs for 2020 totaled about $20.7 billion. Payroll tax deferrals totaled about $123.6 billion, as shown in the table. In addition, preliminary data indicate 2021 usage of leave credits and ERCs likely exceed 2020 usage.

Data on Leave Credits, Employee Retention Credits, and Payroll Tax Deferrals, 2020


Number of employers using

Dollars in billions

Leave credits



Employee Retention Credits



Payroll tax deferrals



Source: GAO analysis of Internal Revenue Service data. | GAO-22-104280

Note: The tax credit dollar figures are as reported by taxpayers and are subject to taxpayer reporting error. Data are from employment and income tax returns, as of December 2021 and January 2022.

Several of the top industry sectors claiming leave credits and ERCs were sectors most affected by the pandemic that GAO identified in previous work. For example, Manufacturing claimed the second highest amounts of leave credit dollars (about 13 percent) and the Accommodation and Food Services sector claimed the highest amount of ERC dollars (about 15 percent).

IRS took some steps to identify and plan for compliance risks associated with the leave credits and the ERC. As IRS continues to plan for examinations of both credits—which expired in 2021 but will be subject to examination for several years after filing—GAO found IRS could strengthen these efforts by expanding its use of selected project management practices. For example, IRS developed objectives but the objectives did not evolve to reflect statutory changes made after the CARES Act, are not measurable, and do not include criteria to measure success. A comprehensive and cohesive compliance plan would help guide IRS efforts to ensure that it adequately identifies and addresses compliance risks.

IRS began creating new processes to research and address compliance risks associated with tax credits claimed on adjusted returns and employers who claimed multiple credits with wages that are restricted from use for more than one type of credit. However, IRS has not documented how it developed those processes or how it would implement them in practice. Documentation increases transparency and can inform future compliance efforts.

In preliminary data, GAO found 337 filings, totaling $100 million, from employers that were established in April 2020 or later, but then stopped filing employment tax returns. IRS screening filters flagged more than 65 percent of these filers for review. However, those controls may still overlook ineligible entities because they do not consider certain factors, such as refund amounts and employer establishment dates.

Why GAO Did This Study

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in significant challenges to the U.S. economy, leading to business closures. The employment tax relief measures Congress passed to help businesses affected by the pandemic were estimated to result in about $237.8 billion in foregone revenue for fiscal years 2021-2031.

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report describes IRS's efforts in implementing the employment tax provisions. The report also evaluates IRS's plans and actions to identify compliance risks for the provisions.

GAO reviewed federal laws and compared IRS's compliance plans and procedures with selected project management practices and with tax credit eligibility requirements. GAO analyzed IRS data from employment tax returns for 2020, including data on industry sector. GAO also interviewed IRS employees and officials.


GAO is making five recommendations including that IRS develop a compliance plan consistent with project management principles, document compliance processes for adjusted returns and tax credits using restricted wages, and identify ineligible entities. IRS agreed with two of the recommendations and disagreed with three. IRS said its current processes are sufficient. GAO maintains that these recommendations remain warranted.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop an integrated project management plan for the COVID-19 credits to improve IRS's ability to manage and plan compliance efforts related to these credits. The plan should include
  • measurable objectives;
  • key activities to support accomplishment of objectives, including documenting stakeholder involvement, knowledge sharing, and integrated change control; and
  • details surrounding measuring, tracking, or reviewing the performance of the project, such as steps to verify if the actions of the plan were successful at mitigating compliance risks IRS identified. (Recommendation 1)
IRS disagreed with this recommendation, stating in its response letter that it uses project management techniques, and that its project plan includes details to implement the project, including compliance. We acknowledge that IRS partially demonstrated project management practices. However, without measurable objectives, comprehensive planning documents and schedule management, and other practices, IRS is not fully prepared to move forward with compliance activities for the tax credits. In February 2024, IRS officials described several offices and teams involved in Employee Retention Credit compliance efforts. Some of these efforts are underway--such as the Voluntary Disclosure Program and Withdrawal Program--and others are under consideration. IRS has not yet provided any plans associated with these efforts. We will update this recommendation when we receive additional information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should document the processes being used to address compliance risks associated with Employee Retention Credit and leave credit claims on adjusted employment tax returns. (Recommendation 2)
IRS agreed with this recommendation. In February 2024, IRS officials said they are evaluating additional treatment streams for the Employee Retention Credit and that they have several existing efforts to address compliance concerns with adjusted returns. IRS officials said they began transcribing and scanning adjusted returns, which are filed on paper, in September 2023. They plan to analyze the data for risk assessment and compliance decision making purposes. According to IRS, an initial analysis of 2020 digitized returns was shared with compliance programs in January 2024, and additional decisions will be made about treatment actions. IRS has not yet provided documentation of these efforts. We will update this recommendation when we receive additional information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should document the processes being used to address compliance risks associated with the Employee Retention Credit and leave credits that rely on wages that cannot be used for other tax credits. (Recommendation 3)
IRS agreed with this recommendation. IRS provided training materials, from 2022, instructing examination staff to ensure that employers did not use the same wages to claim both the Employee Retention Credit and the sick and family leave credits. These materials can help ensure that employment tax returns under examination used qualified wages to claim the credits. To screen all employment tax returns, in February 2024, IRS officials said they conducted testing to identify employers using the same wages for both credits. IRS has not yet provided any documentation associated with these efforts. IRS does not have a process to address this issue for credits claimed on adjusted returns. We will update this recommendation when we receive additional information.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should implement additional controls to help identify tax credit recipients who may be ineligible employers. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
In April 2023, IRS provided documentation on the Office of Fraud Enforcement's Fabricated Entities Review Project. The documentation included a list of potential fraud indicators of entity fabrication and false Employee Retention Credit claims. Initial results showed that IRS identified 518 fabricated entities, resulting in $77.8 million of credit reversals and $94.9 million of claims referred for criminal investigation.
Internal Revenue Service The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should update and implement postfiling compliance or examination activities to address potentially invalid or inaccurate employer credit refund claims that were not prevented by internal controls. (Recommendation 5)
Closed – Implemented
In January 2023, IRS provided data showing it had opened 2,646 examinations on leave credit and Employee Retention Credit claims in fiscal year 2022 and through December 2022. Of the closed examinations, about $20 million had been assessed. These examinations help ensure taxpayers receive the appropriate tax treatment.

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