For most people, doing taxes once each year is more than enough, but Sheldon Kay does as many as 20 returns for other people -- for free.
Kay, a retired engineer who spent most of his career working on the Hubble telescope, is one of a group of volunteers who fill out tax forms for low- and moderate-income people and seniors through the United Way of the Bay Area's EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! program.
The program has saved millions of dollars in taxes for Bay Area residents who earn less than $49,000 per year, according to the organization.
Volunteers have also prevented thousands of people from predatory lending by some for-fee tax preparers, who offer enticing high-interest advances on refund checks.
With one month left in this year's tax season, the program has seen a 25 percent increase in demand over last year, in large part because many first-time clients had their incomes drop significantly due to job loss or cuts in hours, Kelly Batson, regional director, said.
Last year, 33 percent of program clients reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job in the previous year, and 29 percent had a cut in hours or wages, she said.
"Even if you didn't qualify for free tax preparation in previous years, this year could be different, especially if you saw a reduction in your income. Not only will you get your taxes prepared for free, but you'll also receive expert guidance on how to account for unemployment benefits in your tax return and which tax breaks you are eligible for when your income is down," she said.
Those tax breaks can amount to a significant savings and even a refund in thousands of dollars, she said.
Last year, the program recouped $57 million in tax refunds from 51,963 tax returns volunteers prepared, according to Rob Nerrie, site coordinator at JobTrain in Menlo Park, which is one of 211 Bay Area sites. The program started in Alameda County in 2003 with 14 locations, he said.
People often don't realize they can earn income credits and credits for being single-family heads of households with dependents, he said.
One such credit, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, is the nation's largest benefits program for working families. It can boost the annual income of a low-wage worker by 10 percent, according to the United Way.
The credit is often overlooked by commercial tax preparers, but EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! volunteers are trained to identify eligible taxpayers, Nerrie said.
The savings can be significant, Batson said.
"A family of five making $12,000 to $25,000 can receive a $5,600 refund. I saw a family with a $20,000 income that got $9,000 back last year," she said.
The program also keeps financially vulnerable clients in need of immediate cash out of the hands of predatory lenders, Nerrie said. Some commercial tax preparers try to sell refund-anticipation loans that advance cash before the tax refund comes in.
"The loans can carry up to 300 percent interest on your money," he said.
But EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! volunteers help clients who have never had a bank account to set up direct-deposit accounts so that refunds quickly arrive. Someone filing their taxes online today would have their money by April 1, he said.
The program is approved and monitored by the Internal Revenue Service, Nerrie said. Volunteers receive about five days of training and have a thick instruction manual at the ready while preparing the tax returns one-on-one with the client.
For volunteers such as Kay, the work is immediately satisfying, he said.
"The last gal I helped here said, 'I need the money' and she got a nice refund. It makes me feel good that she walks away happy."
Kay said he did his own taxes years ago and began doing tax returns for friends who were afraid of numbers or who were not as computer savvy.
Some filings are simple; others take two hours.
The news isn't always good, however. Some people don't realize they'll owe on unemployment benefits; others whose homes were foreclosed on will have the sale sum count as income, and that can mean thousands of dollars in taxes that they don't have, he said.
Madhu Mehta, another retired engineer, volunteered at another federal tax-prep program in Houston, Texas, before coming to California. The area was exceedingly impoverished, filled with little shacks on stilts that were raised to avoid flooding, he said. But he could still give hope to people making only $3,000 to $4,000 a year by finding tax credits that could put money in their pockets, he said.
"It was a big awakening," he added.
One client this year sticks in his mind:
"She had a good job before at an airline and is out of work. She had an apartment and had to leave it and move in with friends. Now she is the head of her household.
"I told her that she had a significant amount of a refund. She was so shocked when she saw that number. She was thrilled," he said.
Eligible persons for the program can locate an EarnIt!KeepIt!SaveIt! site by calling 211 or 800-358-8832.