As Atlanta disability attorneys, a common question we receive is, “Can I work and still get Social Security disability benefits?”
The answer is often determined on a case-by-case basis.
Yet, the Social Security Administration (SSA) follows a set process to determine your level of disability, ability to work, and acceptable level of income that can give you some general guideposts. Understanding the process can help you better navigate your claim.
Note: It is important to remember that there are different rules regarding work activity for someone who is applying for disability, versus someone who is already on disability benefits.
In any case, the first step in evaluating your Social Security case will be determining your income and current employment.
To qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), you must be unable to engage in what is called “substantial gainful activity,” or SGA.
Here’s how SSA defines substantial gainful activity:
“A person who is earning more than a certain monthly amount . . . is ordinarily considered to be engaging in SGA. The amount of monthly earnings considered as SGA depends on the nature of a person's disability.”
Beyond this definition, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to your work options with Social Security disability benefits.
Substantial Gainful Activity: What exactly is “SGA”?
As mentioned above, SGA is a limit to the monthly income you can earn when seeking benefits. If you exceed this monthly limit, the SSA may not consider you disabled in most situations.
The social security administration has created a cutoff in the amount of earnings you can receive. In 2020, SGA is $1,260 per month, or $2,110 for blind individuals.
The SSA can and does subtract certain work-related expenses related to your disability that allow you to be able to work. Work-related expenses may be deducted from your “countable earnings” for SGA purposes. Some examples include:
- counseling services
- some types of specialized transportation for work, modification of a vehicle
- a wheelchair, keyboard, glove
- other equipment or aids to help you perform work duties
Note: Whether applying for benefits or already receiving them, it’s always important to keep the SSA apprised of any changes in employment. The amounts you pay for these expenses could reduce your earnings below the amounts above, making a big difference in your case.
It is very important to remember that even if your work activity is less than the amounts described above, any and all work activity by a claimant will be considered by the SSA in their overall determination. This includes part-time work, self-employment, and any other source of work that provides income. You can consult with a skilled representative to properly understand how your work activity affects your potential claim.
Can You Work While Seeking Disability?
The answer is technically yes, you can work a certain amount when seeking benefits—but it may very well impact the decisions of those examining your case as described above.
For example, if you don’t meet the SGA limit of $1,260 (or $2,110 if blind) but work a substantial number of hours per week, this could be factored into a determination about your severity of disability. This can negatively impact how examiners and judges view your ability to work.
The agency can take certain facts from your work as well, for example, that you have to lift 50 pounds on your job, that you have to stand for 4 hours a day, and so on. All of these work activities can undercut your claim that you are unable to work on a consistent basis. It is very important to understand the context of your work.
Do you have accommodations? Does a friend or family member employ you out of sympathy?
The SSA, and especially an Administrative Law Judge, will want to know the details of your work situation to properly assess how it impacts their overall view of your disability.
The SSA can be quite strict in their regulations, and it is doubly hard to seek disability benefits when you are unable to provide a regular income for yourself and possibly your family. Seeking a disability representative can be important in assessing the impact of work activity on your case.
Some notable exceptions to typical rules regarding employment include sheltered work, accommodated work, or vocational rehab.
Sheltered workshops are programs for disabled individuals to earn a wage under supervision, while being trained in work or life skills.
Sheltered work may be considered as a normal part of your earnings during the application phase, depending on the circumstances and the type of work. A sheltered workshop training period, however, may offer rehabilitative training and an income while not counting toward the SGA limit.
If returning to the regular workforce after a rehabilitation program, earnings will once again be used in determining benefits eligibility.
Accommodated work is that which makes it possible to perform your job duties, despite your disability, through adjustments in the work environment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Accommodations may include specialized equipment, modifications to the work environment or adjustments to work schedules or responsibilities.”
Work accommodations, depending on their nature, may be considered by the SSA in determining your eligibility for benefits. It is very important for the adjudicator, or administrative law judge, assigned to your case to know and understand how these accommodations may rebut the presumption that your work activity is substantial.
Ticket to Work is a Social Security program by which you can receive vocational rehabilitation through the state of Georgia, as well as training, job referrals, and other types of employment support. Using your Ticket to Work options while receiving benefits won’t subject you to additional medical reviews of your disability while completing the program according to the SSA’s published literature. It is important to consult with someone with detailed knowledge of the program before beginning.
Other than Ticket to Work, most of the above dealt with how income affects you during your application for disability benefits. Let's explore how your income can affect you when you are receiving disability benefits.
Note: Work accommodations are to be considered by the SSA for both people applying and people receiving SSDI/SSI.
Trial Work Period
A trial work period is a nine-month period after you begin receiving benefits. These are not necessarily nine sequential months, as seen below. This trial period allows you to explore your work options and still receive full Social Security benefits, regardless of your earnings. A month counts as one of your nine “trial work” months when you earn more than $910 in a month, and this amount is subject to change from year to year.
Your nine months don’t have to be sequential, but they must happen within the first 60 months of receiving benefits. Basically, you have 9 trial work months for every “60 month rolling period,” or 5 years.
If you make less than $910 in a month, that month does not count as a trial work month.
If you do make $910 or more in a month, you have now used one of your trial work months.
Let’s say you end up working for 9 months out of 60 months and you make $910 or more a month. You have now exceeded your trial work months, and you enter into a new phase of the process.
You have 36 months to continue to work on a trial basis. For every month that your earnings are not substantially gainful - in 2020, it’s $1,260 or $2,110 if you’re blind - you will receive your disability benefits. If you lose benefits for a month during this period, you don’t have to reapply to get them again the next month as long as your earnings are under the required amount.
Once the 36 months expire, you typically will stop receiving your disability benefits at this point, although you do have the right to apply. These situations have been known to cause overpayments, where the SSA attempts to seek repayment of certain funds.
Note: Even if you keep your work activity under $910 a month, it is your responsibility to report any earnings or wages to the SSA if you are receiving disability benefits. Further, the SSA has the right to review your case medically at any time to see if you are still disabled. This review can be triggered by many things, such as even a small amount of earnings reported. Therefore, one must fully consider many factors when deciding to attempt to work while receiving disability benefits.
Other stipulations of the trial work period include:
- Expedited reinstatement for up to five years, should you lose your benefits but need to reapply later, such as when your disability worsens and you are unable to continue working. While the SSA reviews these changes, you won’t have to wait to reapply or start receiving benefits.
- Continuation of Medicare means that if earnings cause your benefits to stop, and you decide it’s in your best interest to retain your status as disabled, you’ll still receive certain parts of Medicare benefits for at least 93 months after the nine-month trial work period ends, if you pay the appropriate premiums for parts A or B coverage.
As you can see, the conditions used by the SSA to examine your level of disability—and your ability to work—are complicated and vary based on the specifics of your case.
An important step you can take early on is to consult an Atlanta disability attorney about your case. The right attorney will advocate on your behalf and guide you through the benefits process. They’ll help you understand your work options and how those will potentially affect your benefits.
For Social Security cases, you usually won’t pay a lawyer’s fee unless you win your claim.
If your Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income claim has been denied, or you’re thinking about filing and don’t know where to start, Affleck and Gordon can help. We’ve been helping people in Georgia just like you for over 40 years. Sign up for a free case evaluation here, or call us (404) 795-7227.