Because it can take the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) several months or even years to determine whether an applicant is disabled, many claimants want to know if they can work while the SSA is making its determination. Furthermore, many beneficiaries who are already receiving benefits may want to know if they can try to work while on disability.
The answer is to both questions is yes, but there are very strict rules which can vary depending on whether you are waiting for benefits or already receiving them. It is a good idea to consult a disability attorney in Lowell for further clarification on these rules, but the following discussion covers the basics.
The SSA definition of disability is the inability to engage in “substantial gainful activity” (SGA). This is a fancy way of saying full-time work. Because of this, it is possible to do some work, and still be found disabled. There are many aspects to the definition of SGA, but the basic rule for 2016 (the amount is adjusted yearly) is that an applicant cannot earn more than $1,130 a month ($1,820 if you are blind). The SSA looks at gross earnings, so it is important to pay attention to the amount of money you make before taxes, insurance, or any other deductions are taken out.
It is also important to remember that while this is the general rule, the SSA will look at other factors as well. Thus, even if you work under SGA, the SSA can use your work activity against you. Remember, the SSA has to decide if you can engage in SGA. Thus, even if you are not, they may think you are able to. They may look at other factors, including:
On the flip side, even if you work over SGA, there are certain rules that may allow you to still be found disabled. The most notable of these rules is the unsuccessful work attempt (“UWA”). For this exception to apply, there are certain requirements that must be met. For example, the job must have ended because of your conditions, and not for other reasons. Also, the work must end or drop below SGA for at least 30 days. If these requirements are met, and the job lasts less than 3 months, then it is a UWA.
If it lasted more than 3 months, but less than 6, there must be other circumstances related to the work (i.e., you missed work frequently, your work was unsatisfactory, you worked during a period of remission, or you worked under special conditions). If you go over SGA for more than 6 months, there is no UWA.
Another exception is impairment related work expenses (“IRWE”). These are expenses you pay for items or services that enable you to work (for example, transportation costs or medical devices such as a brace or walker). The SSA will deduct these amounts from your earnings, which could take you from earning over SGA to earning below SGA. Again, it is important to discuss your work activity with your disability attorney in Lowell, because these rules can be complicated. For example, if you work outside the home, you can deduct modifications to the outside of your residence to help you get to work, such as a ramp or railings, but you cannot deduct modifications inside your residence.
A third exception arises if you have special conditions at work. This may include extra assistance from your co-workers, extra breaks or days off, irregular hours, special equipment, working at a lower standard, or any other special treatment. These conditions could mean that even if you are grossing over $1,130 per month, you are not earning SGA.
The SSA tries to encourage disability beneficiaries to work. Thus, while the SGA rules apply to those who have been found disabled, there are other exception in addition to the UWA, IRWE, and special conditions.
The most common exception to SGA while you are receiving benefits is the trial work period (“TWP”). This exception only applies to SSDI beneficiaries, not SSI beneficiaries. You get 9 trial work months in the 5 years after your disability began (or the 5 years after you filed, whichever is later). Any month in which you earn more than $810 counts as a TWP (this amount is for 2016; again, this is adjusted yearly). Once you use all 9 of your months, normal SGA rules apply.
The SSA also has several work related programs that can help you try to get back to work. These include PASS and Ticket to Work.
Navigating the minefield of working while waiting for or receiving disability benefits can be tricky. That is why it is so important to have an attorney to turn to for advice on these subjects.