Melinda Rodriguez-Mendez looks forward to tax season every year, and it’s not because of a check, or at least not a check made out to her. Rodriguez-Mendez is one of the seasonal tax preparers who staff the Food Bank for New York City’s free income-tax preparation sites. She looks forward to that look in the eyes of struggling new parents when they realize how much of a refund they’re eligible for. “It’s a beautiful thing,” she says.
Rodriguez-Mendez is site manager at the South Bronx tax prep site located at the Phipps Neighborhood Opportunity Center in Melrose. She may sit on one side of the desk, but as a mother of three—one who’s been finding work through temp agencies since being laid off from a job at a tax and financial planning firm in 2009—Rodriguez-Mendez feels a bond with the clients. “We are all struggling financially, and that’s why the service is here,” she says. “So that people don’t have to spend money doing tax returns that could go to food.”
That, in essence, is the philosophy behind the Food Bank for New York City’s free income tax services. Food Bank launched the program in 2002, recognizing how important tax time is for low and middle income New Yorkers, thanks largely to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which grants credits of up to roughly six thousand dollars to those who qualify—with incomes between roughly $14,000 to $54,000, depending on the number of dependents. The Food Bank program helps New Yorkers access the credit they’re due under EITC without having to pay a fee at a tax prep business.
“The EITC makes all the difference,” said German Tejada, director of income policy at Food Bank for NYC, who stopped by the tax prep site in Melrose on March 5. He took out his phone and punched out some quick calculations for a hypothetical (but not atypical) New York situation: $9 minimum wage times a forty-hour work week, minus twelve months of rent at $1,100, leaves about $4,000 per year left for everything else—before taxes are even taken out. You can’t balance utilities, rent, and food on that budget, he said. “Food is the fudge-able budget amount that you can cut back on. The EITC makes people able to pay their debt so they miss less meals.”
The Food Bank services are only available for households earning less than $54,000 or single earners making less than $30,000 per year. So the majority of the filers that wait their turn to sit down with a preparer in the large back room at the Phipps center will receive an EITC. And in fact, preparers at the South Bronx location receive the EITC too, Rodriguez-Mendez said, “We are part of that.”
Knowing the importance of every penny made it hard for Rodriguez-Mendez to work for a paid tax preparer. She was in that situation briefly, but it wasn’t for her: “You have someone with one W-2 and you’re going to charge them $200 for the return and they’re probably on food stamps?” she says, raising her eyebrows. “Here everybody gets it for free.”
Asif Khan, one of the preparers at the Melrose locations, is of the same mind. He decided to commute 90 minutes from Queens to work with Food Bank in lieu of another offer for paid tax-prep work in his neighborhood, because he wanted to assist those who need it, without the fee.
“I feel happy helping the community,” said Khan, who also got connected to the Food Bank through a temp agency. He holds an MBA from his native Pakistan, where he worked as an accountant.
Nearly 600 people staff the twenty full-service Food Bank free tax prep sites across the city. More than 300 of them are volunteers, who could spend as little as three hours a week, while the rest are paid employees—preparers, translators, and IT technicians—mostly seasonal and contracted through temp agencies. All preparers go through a multi-step training process. First they must pass the IRS’s Link & Learn Taxes online certification; then they do a face-to-face training and test. Quality reviewers and site managers also check tax returns before submitting them electronically.
At the Melrose site, only one of the preparers is a volunteer, Bronx resident Asmir Nikocevic, who’s finishing up an associate’s degree in accounting at Borough of Manhattan Community College. But Tejada said that proportion changes depending on the area. In more affluent areas like Prospect Park and the Upper East Side, for example, there’s an abundance of volunteers. “South Bronx is the hardest sell.”
On a sunny Saturday in March this site is pretty quiet. About half a dozen people sit quietly in the waiting room, clipboards in hand, filling out forms about their financial situation. A few kids play on phones. In the main room, the preparers and clients conference in front of desktop computers, the low murmur of English and Spanish punctuated by the occasional churn of the paper shredder. March is a relative lull compared to February or right before the mid-April deadline.
The hours can be long during those peak times. All fifty seats in the waiting room will fill, and while the staff may shut the doors at seven p.m., they’ll work until everybody who’s waiting has been seen, sometimes as many as 100 clients in a day.
There’s a definite sense of appreciation among those who are sitting in the waiting room. Bronx resident Christobell Lewis, who works in childcare, used to pay $180 or more for tax assistance until her sister told her about this tax prep site. Now she’s been coming for the last three years. “I feel comfortable here,” she says.
Nelly Perez is a home attendant who also heard about the free tax prep services through word of mouth, but says she now receives notices about it through her 1199 union. She’s happy to not have to pay the $100 that she used to for her tax prep, but she also likes that the preparers here ask you a whole host of questions to help you connect with other Food Bank programs. For example, tax preparers can also help register eligible filers for SNAP benefits.
The idea of using tax filing as a moment to connect with and empower low-income New Yorkers is part of a larger context. The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs leads a coalition of organizations that offer Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, like Food Bank. This year there are more than 100 full-service tax prep sites under the DCA umbrella. DCA and the Office of Financial Empowerment are also in year two of a campaign to raise awareness about tax credits and free filing. Virtual filing options, where filers drop off documents, are another option within this effort, and one that Tejada says will likely expand in coming years.
Back in the tax room at the South Bronx location, Rodriguez-Mendez surveyed the line of preparers working with clients with a pleased look. In about six weeks she’ll be packing up the office and setting aside her role as site manager until next year. The room will go back to being a regular part of the Phipps center and she’ll look for another job. But right now, the tax season is just barely at the halfway point. Her preparers have done 1,300 returns so far and she’s optimistic they’ll beat last year’s 2,005. She likes it best when the office is busy, connecting people with financial boosts—“That’s what makes it worth it.”