• Tennessee: Of the 2.8 million returns, 1.5 million, or 54.4 percent used paid preparers
• Georgia: Of the 4.6 million returns, 2.6 million, or 55.8 percent, used paid preparers
• Alabama: Of the 2.1 million returns, 1.3 million, or 60.6 percent, used paid preparers
Source: Internal Revenue Service
Jan. 30: IRS begins accepting and processing most 2012 individual income tax returns
Jan. 31: Deadline for employers to furnish W-2 forms and certain other information for 2012 to employees
April 15 - Deadline to file most tax returns for 2012
Source: Internal Revenue Service
Usually by mid-January, the lobby at H&R Block's Rossville Boulevard location is full of clients ready to file their annual tax returns.
But on Tuesday, every seat was empty.
The Internal Revenue Service will start processing tax returns on Jan. 30 -- eight days later than originally planned -- because of last-minute changes made in the fiscal cliff deal. The delay is causing a drop in business, local tax preparation companies say.
"By this time of January, we usually have most of our tax preparers here, the lobby is full and we're working like little Trojans," Susie Evans, H&R Block master tax adviser, said Tuesday in her nearly empty office.
The nationwide delay means even the earliest filers won't get their tax refund checks until at least Feb. 17, Rapid Tax Service owner Joe Lautigar said.
"And even that is a preliminary date, because there will be so many returns, and we just don't know how long it will take to process," he said. "The average taxpayer should not count on that refund check until they actually have it in their hands -- that's always a good practice, but especially this year."
Taxpayers can start the return process now, he said, but the IRS won't look at returns until Jan. 30, H&R Block enrolled agent Diana Jacobsen said.
"We tell the people to come in if you've got your W-2, we can put it in the computer and finish probably 75 percent of the returns people are wanting to do right now," she said. "Then they go on hold at our host server and as soon as the IRS opens their computers, our returns are sitting there ready to go immediately."
The influx of returns on Jan. 30 could overload the IRS computers, Lautigar said.
The delay forced him to push his 10 seasonal employees' start date back a week.
"They weren't happy and I wasn't happy, but what can you do?" he said. "It's supposed to be the busy season, but the IRS delays have sort of put a hold on that."
Americans will spend about 6.1 billion hours complying with tax filing requirements this year, according to a report Nina E. Olson, the national taxpayer advocate, gave Congress. That's the equivalent of more than 3 million full-time workers, the Associated Press reports.
Toni Lewis, who owns Liberty Tax Service locations in Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy, said she's also had a slow start, but she still expects to prepare 1,500 returns before the April 15 deadline.
"I hired pretty aggressively so that we would be ready for the clients when they do come," she said, adding she put about 15 seasonal tax workers on the payroll this year. She's also stationed people dressed in Statue of Liberty costumes in front of her stores to attract motorists.
Nine in 10 taxpayers will pay a professional preparer or use commercial tax software to fill out their taxes, according to The Associated Press.
Nancy McCarley said she pays a friend $20 to do her taxes because she wants to be sure she gets the largest refund she's eligible for and she doesn't know all the details of the tax code.
"The tax laws change every year and my friend is an accountant and has the latest updates," she said. "I just want to make sure I get what I'm entitled to."
In Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, over half of all federal returns were prepared by a professional service, IRS records show. H&R Block will hire about 300 seasonal employees in the Chattanooga area.
"A lot of times, clients look at the IRS as that great big monster and they're afraid of it," Evans said. "They come to us because they're not sure what the law says, or how it affects them."
Lewis said about 60 percent of her business comes from taxpayers with fairly simple returns, while about 40 percent need more specialized assistance.
Chattanooga resident Rich Mander said he always fills out his own returns. "It's just the way I was brought up," he said. "My dad taught me to do it. You get the form and you send it in."
Dan Boone, IRS spokesman for Tennessee and Alabama, said the IRS now requires all tax preparers to register and receive an official ID number. He encouraged taxpayers to check their preparers' credentials.
"It's a good idea to ask your preparer and make sure they use that number when they file the return," he said. "No matter who does it, you are responsible for the accuracy of the return. It's important to hire somebody who is trained and has good credentials."
He thinks the late start date won't inconvenience the majority of taxpayers.
"Typically the IRS starts accepting electronic returns in mid-January, so it's only a couple weeks delay," he said. "And of course, a lot of employees get their W-2s at the end of January, so for a lot of people it won't change anything."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.