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Working and Disability

Can you work and collect disability? That’s a question we often get, and the answer isn’t as easy as you might think. This topic gets complicated quickly and it’s impossible to provide a comprehensive answer in a single blog post. However, this should help to provide a basic overview of how working can affect your disability application.

It’s not about “work”; it’s about “substantial gainful activity.”

To keep this as simple as possible, the government will not award disability benefits to those who are gainfully working. In fact, that’s the very first question Social Security asks itself when it receives a disability application. Except instead of referring to “work,” it refers to “substantial gainful activity,” or SGA. This SGA concept is so significant, in fact, that Congress specifically defined disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. . . .”

So what is SGA? Social Security defines SGA as any work that both 1) entails significant physical or mental activities and 2) is done for pay or profit. In fact, SSA has specific monthly dollar amounts for blind and non-blind individuals for each year, and earnings that exceed those levels are generally found to be SGA. For 2020, the monthly threshold is $2,110 for the blind and $1260/month for non-blind individuals. So if you earn more than that amount on a monthly basis, you are very likely performing SGA and cannot be found disabled. But the converse is not necessarily true--even if you make less than the SGA threshold, that does not rule out the possibility of SGA; it just raises a presumption that your work isn’t SGA.

The standards get even more complicated for self-employed individuals. A self-employed individual is said to be performing SGA if he meets any one of three tests. The first test is whether he is making “substantial income” and providing “significant services.” The second test is whether the work is comparable to that of an unimpaired worker. And the third test is whether the work activity is clearly worth more than the SGA table amount. If the answer to any one of these tests is “yes,” the work is considered SGA. But you should know that—like employees—if a self-employed worker’s countable income exceeds the SGA monthly threshold discussed above, then his work is SGA.

SGA exceptions

As with everything, there are some exceptions to the SGA rules. Even if your earnings exceed the SGA cutoff, you can still be found disabled if your work was an “unsuccessful work attempt.” This can arise if you try to go back to work but you have to stop because you can no longer perform the job due to your medical impairments. However, the work attempt must last for six months or less, and it has to be preceded by a “significant break” in the applicant’s work history such that he/she was out of work for at least 30 days (consecutively).

Another exception to consider is if your gross monthly earnings only slightly exceed the SGA cutoff. You might be able to reduce the monthly amount below the SGA cutoff if, for instance, your work was subsidized. In that instance, SSA will only consider the true value of your work compared to unimpaired workers. Some disabled workers can also reduce their earnings by deducting necessary medical expenses, costs for medical equipment, medications, or prosthetics. However, SSA only considers the actual “out-of-pocket” expense the worker had to pay and not expenses covered by a health insurer.

What should I do if I apply for disability?

The answer to this question depends person by person. That being said, we often find ourselves telling our clients that, if you can work, you should. While some disability applicants can catch a lucky break, the U.S. government is not known for giving handouts. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America’s eligibility criteria are among the strictest in the world. Fewer than four in ten applicants are ultimately approved, and they wait an average of 1.5 years for decisions on their appeals. As one expert put it, the U.S. disability standards are so stringent “it is almost offensive.”

That being said, we’ve also found that any kind of work can have a devastating impact on a disability case, even if it is well below the SGA threshold. The reason is that SSA generally sees working and disability as mutually exclusive: you either can work, or you can’t. This mindset is so pervasive, that most disability judges see an applicant’s attempt to look for work as a bad thing. “If you’re disabled, then why are you looking for work?” Suffice it to say, if you are disabled, and you’re considering whether or not to try to return to work, that’s something that you should carefully discuss with an attorney—At least until the government reconsiders its views on work activity and disability benefits.

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