Accountants Still Working in a Changing Landscape
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Accountants Still Working in a Changing Landscape

Deemed an “essential” industry under Gov. Walz’s latest executive order, financial firms hunt for ways to keep working while maintaining data security.

As the $2 trillion economic stabilization package makes its way through Congress and Minnesotans hunker down for two more weeks of staying home, accountants are looking for ways to keep filing taxes and payroll.

The massive package, which would include payouts to everyone from individual taxpayers to big business, would also impact some tax laws, according to Chris Wittich, a CPA and partner with Bloomington-based Boyum Barenscheer.

Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order does allow accounting and financial services firms to continue operating, but the dilemma hinges on how to remain safe while still delivering necessary services.

Some companies, like Wittich’s, are more prepared to have employees working from home.

“I know the office is not empty, but it’s definitely got way less people in it on a daily basis,” Wittich said.

He does the majority of his job remotely, but he still goes into the office occasionally because clients mail in their tax documents, which need to be scanned in.

“I don’t think we really have a big issue or concern with data security, because the systems we use are just as secure when I’m working from home as when I’m working from the office,” he said.

Once everything is digitized, there’s a dual authentication barrier to the company’s tax programs. And Boyum Barenscheer, a midsized firm with approximately 80 employees, already had the data security and resources in place for employees to be able to work from home, according to Wittich.

“I think some firms are better equipped to handle this remote working. We already had all these systems in place already,” he said. “I think some smaller firms that are maybe not paperless … might really struggle with the ability to work remotely. But for the most part we’re business as usual.”

But some firms simply don’t have the resources to do remote work.

Erin Nebben, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Public Accountants, works in payroll and has to be in the office to print and mail physical checks since some clients don’t have direct deposit.

“And we don’t want to say, sorry we’re closing, we can’t process your payroll to pay your employees,” she said.

But her office is taking measures to make remaining in the office safe and in compliance with CDC recommendations.

“We have a box out in our waiting area that people can just drop things off, and we leave it there for a certain period of time. We don’t touch anything. We have gloves, we sanitize after every client comes in,” Nebben said. “Hopefully we’re taking the right steps to protect ourselves, but we’re trying to just make sure that our clients are still taken care of as well.”

And if broadband internet isn’t available at home, like in much of Greater Minnesota, working remotely is even less viable, said Geno Fragnito, director of government relations for the Minnesota Society of CPAs.

“There are places in Minnesota where broadband is still an issue, so it’s not an option for them to work at home,” Fragnito said. “I know that there’s a lot more questions that need to be answered than we have answers right now.”

Right now, in the face of uncertainty, clients may be unable to pay for financial services, but need financial advice more than ever before. Fragnito said that CPAs are there to serve their clients and will help businesses and individuals navigate the difficult situation imposed by the pandemic.

“The markets and the liquidity are going to come into play and right now what I’m hearing from a lot of my members is cash flow is at the top of the list in terms of concerns and everything else kind of falls behind that,” Fragnito said.

In addition to the challenges of finding ways to either work from home or work safely at the office, accounting and financial services face dealing with rapidly changing information.

“The difficult thing is we’re getting the information at the same time everyone is,” Nebben said. “So we’re trying to sift through all that information and get the best information we can back out to the clients.”

As the executive director of MAPA, she also faces the challenge of making sure its members have the most current information.

And while 2019 federal and state taxes have been pushed back to July 15, small business owners may still need to file in order to apply to some of the loans, Wittich said. Other clients may simply need their tax returns sooner rather than later for an additional cash flow.

“We’re trying to get as much work done as we can right now,” he said. “Currently we’re trying to read and write up some stuff about the new bill that’s working its way through congress. And it seems like that’s going to be passed.”

The pending stimulus bill, which was approved by the Senate late Wednesday and will head to the House soon, will also have an impact on some business owners’ taxes, Wittich noted. As a result, he said he’s holding off on filing taxes for clients who might be affected until the final language of the bill is released.

“People need to talk to their CPA and figure out whether or not their situation is impacted, I think most individuals who are employees, they’re not going to be super impacted by this tax bill, but they are going to be getting this cash refund,” Wittich said.

At the same time, accounting professionals are also looking at a continuing education deadline of June 30, but the cancellation of in-person classes and the tax extension may make this tricky. And while they’re petitioning for that deadline to be extended, it’s not a primary concern in the face of everything else.

“It’s really a crazy time to be working in this area, because there’s just been so much change,” Wittich said. “It’s a changing landscape, and it’s changing very quickly, so staying on top of it for a business or an individual taxpayer is just critical. Especially if they’re struggling with cash flow.”