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Davis, California

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Viva la VITA

When working at low wages, paychecks are carefully forecasted to the penny. And yet, when looking at the breakdown of hours worked and money earned, the figure always comes up short a few dollars.
Taxes.

All year, money drains from paychecks to feed the American financial system. To quiet the rumblings of discontent at a slightly less-filled wallet; there is hope to be found, and lost dollars to be reclaimed, if taxes are filed. In the midst of the February-to-mid-April tax filing season, loud commercials blare from every station about all kinds of money-back guarantees, reaped benefits and the quickest service. What isn’t so blatantly mentioned is that these companies charge taxpayers to retrieve their own money. And when the thick IRS forms are navigated alone, there exists the possibility of missing benefits and erroneously marking signatures and initials.

When confronted by confusion and the advent of paying a company to do taxes, suddenly, going through the motions of claiming lost tax dollars doesn’t seem so urgent.

Thankfully, for anyone making less than $50,000 a year (next to all students who have part-time jobs), there’s the Students in VITA. VITA, or the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, is a national IRS-funded program that connects certified volunteers with individuals or families who make less than $50,000 a year to file tax returns for free.

“It’s completely free. Part of being in VITA is that we don’t accept any compensation,” said VITA coordinator Nery Leon, a fourth-year economics and communication double major. “Our goal is to get all that money back to you — the taxpayer. VITA is available to anyone in Yolo County making less than $50,000 and worked in 2012. It’s not just for students.”

For anyone who qualifies, this translates to getting back some of that money lost with each paycheck — without having to pay for a service. VITA can be free of cost because all of the workers for Students in VITA are trained UC Davis students.

“Everyone in VITA is certified by the IRS through an online certification program,” Leon said.

After going through training and getting experience under their belts, volunteers can then turn around and teach new members.

“As a lead intern, I teach classes to VITA volunteers who are also trying to get certified,” said lead intern and 2012 UC Davis graduate Gloria Lee.

To ensure accuracy for each file, after meeting with a volunteer, the tax forms are reviewed after the appointment.

“For each filing, a quality reviewer checks information like social security numbers,” Lee said.

To file taxes with VITA, one must make an appointment, bring in a photo ID, a Social Security Card (or copy of the card), all W-2 and 1099 forms, and any other earnings or tax forms to one of the VITA sites. From there, the process is streamlined.

“It typically takes about an hour, but it can be as fast as 20 minutes,” said Leon.

In addition to receiving some of the money taken from each paycheck, additional funds can be awarded based on a number of factors. VITA is helpful in that instead of searching through page after page for credit qualifications, volunteers can help quickly pinpoint how to get the most money back, according to Leon.

“To help the taxpayer get as much back as possible, we have an interview sheet to fill out when you come to a [VITA] site. It has questions like, ‘Do you have children,’ ‘Did you pay medical expenses,’ [exceeding $5,000]; things that qualify for benefits,” said Leon. “There’s also a California renters credit; you can actually get money back on your taxes if you bring your landlord’s name and phone number.”

Although most students who have a job are still filed as dependents to their parents, they are eligible to collect money from their personal taxes.

“As a dependent, your parents claim your education expenses, but if you have a part time-job and get a W-2, there is credit out there for you. If you get money taken out of your paycheck, that’s money that you are losing unless you do your taxes,” said Leon.

Not only does the taxpaying community benefit from VITA, the volunteers also find themselves gaining through the program.

“Students get accounting experience by going out and doing taxes for people, [which is why] we have many econ students volunteering with us,” Leon said. “If volunteers complete 40 hours of work each quarter, they qualify for the VITA as an internship through the Internship and Career Center.”

Due to the opportunities to get hands-on experience and internship credit, Students in VITA has grown from 9 volunteers to 85 in a matter of three years.

“In the past years, [the Davis chapter] has changed its whole profile; engineering it more for student involvement. It’s grown tremendously,” said Lupe Hernandez, relationship manager at the IRS.

Hernandez supervises and serves as the IRS’ point of contact for Leon and other Students in VITA members.

“VITA is an excellent stepping stone to a great career and it provides points on résumés, especially with government positions,” Hernandez said.

In addition to earning credit for interning and adding to a résumé, volunteers are able to discover what could potentially become a lifelong career path.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do my senior year with my degree. I joined VITA only because I really enjoy volunteer work. It was my first time getting involved in taxes,” said Lee. “I ended up discovering that it’s actually pretty interesting and fun, and the people I help are so grateful. Thanks to VITA, I’m now working in tax accounting as a bookkeeper.”

Lee is not the only one whose career path was influenced by her participation in the program.

“It made me realize that this is what I have a passion for,” said Leon. “I love sitting down and working with people. I never thought I would, but I like tax policy now. I can actually see myself working in policy and accounting. Everyone I help is so happy, and I enjoy that [part of the job].”

On top of all of the personal growth and development that comes with volunteering with VITA, students are able to make a tangible difference in their community.

“It’s a very exciting part of my job [being involved in VITA]. Students are excited to share and to do work in the community. They are able to see the results of their efforts, and they are able to really help,” Hernandez said. “It’s such an eye opener to see college students on a Friday night helping their community.”

VITA filing for 2012 taxes takes place at two locations in Davis, three times a week until April 15.

The Mary Stephens Library site is open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Mondays 6 to 8 p.m., while the Owendale Community Center site is open Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m.

To make an appointment to file taxes with VITA, or for more information, call (530) 309-8879, or visit their website at sivdavis.com.

HANNAH KRAMER can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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