From the first of March through April 15, Ronald A. J. Wilson likes to see wet, cold weather. "I've never wished rain on the rest of the world, but I'm happy when we get it," he said.
Wilson is a certified public accountant besieged by a flood of tax filings. Poor weather makes the long, stressful hours more bearable because he is not so tempted to abandon his desk. "We've been fortunate that the weather has been wet and cold," Wilson said.
From about Thanksgiving through the deadline looming tonight at midnight, accountants work to complete company financial statements by the end of December, corporate tax returns by March 15 and individual tax returns by April 15. "They go from stress to stress to stress," said Ronald E. Antlitz, a partner of Rowles & Co., a certified public accounting firm with offices in Towson and Salisbury.
The hours, the anxiety and the pressure-cooker atmosphere lead to tired eyes, sore backs and strained family relations, according to several accountants. "There are certain occupational hazards or diseases," said Antlitz.
Wilson, a partner in charge of the tax department of the Baltimore office of KPMG Peat Marwick, one of the nation's largest accounting firms, said work weeks of 60 to 75 hours are common for accountants during the month before the individual tax filing deadline. "There's a lot of psychological pressure," he said.
Under these circumstances, personal tragedies, such as a death in the family, are magnified beyond their normal significance. "It is much more difficult to deal with anything else in your life," Wilson said.
The Baltimore office of Peat Marwick does about 400 individual returns for corporate executives each year. Many of those filings must wait for financial information from limited partnership investments. But those partnership operations often put off sending out that information since they do not have to file returns until April 15. "That information gets to us later and later every year," Wilson said.
This leads to accountants having to file for tax extensions for their clients. Wilson estimates that about 20 percent of the company's Baltimore individual clients need such extensions.
With the tight deadlines, there is also concern about the quality of work that accountants can deliver.
"Sometimes you are rushed to judgment," said Joseph T. Healy, a shareholder of Dembo, Jones and Healy P.C. of Bethesda and also the president of the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants, which has 8,200 CPA members.
From the first of March through the first two weeks of April, Healy said he works from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and a few hours on Sunday. But he does have a limit. On Saturday at 6 p.m. he stopped.
"The pencil falls out of my hand," he said.
All remaining filings got extensions, though this is a very small number for his firm, Healy said.
Besides the time pressures, there can also be tension between the accountants and the clients, who have to pay the tax bill.
"You get the feeling you are the school marm," said Angelo Poletis, tax manager for Rowles & Co. "It's an emotional time for them," he said, adding that clients complain about the complexity of the tax code and government waste in general.
However, he said, clients are taking a greater interest in their tax matters. "We are getting more questions that are rather in-depth," Poletis said.
Computers are no longer a luxury in the accounting business; they are a necessity. While cutting down on some of the drudgery, they have also made the profession into a more capital-intensive business, accountants said.
The equipment also has led to new occupational hazards, one being the "swollen thumb syndrome," according to James L. Lears, director of taxes for Coyne & McClean Chartered, a Towson-based firm with 25 CPAs.
An accountant's right thumb swells up from the repeated hitting of the space bar on a computer and the "0" key on the calculator, he said.
Accountants have their individual ways of dealing with the stress of tax season.
Lears runs seven to eight miles every day during lunch. "It's the only want to keep sane," he said.
Wilson makes a point of trying to go home every night that he is working late to have dinner with his family, change his clothes and then return to work. "It gives me some time with my family," he said.
Antlitz handles the stress by pacing himself through the tax season. "I remember I can only handle one return at a time," he said.
A tradition among most accounting firms is the after-filing party. While accountants have a conservative reputation, this is a time to let their hair down, according to Wilson.
"You would see a side of a CPA that you might not expect existed," he said.
The accountants may be too exhausted to have any fun, however. "Most of the people just fall asleep," said Lears.
Besides CPAs, there are thousands of other tax preparers who face the tax deadline. The largest of these companies is H&R Block, which will prepare 100,000 returns in the Baltimore area this year, according to Al Gould, district manager of the H&R Block operation in the Baltimore area. That is 10 percent more than last year.
H&R Block has about 100 preparers in Baltimore and about 1,000 for the entire state. About 95 percent of the preparers are seasonal workers.
While the company tries to hire plenty of preparers, the work week still expands, Gould said.