A question I am asked nearly every week is “can I work and at the same time apply for Social Security disability benefits?” This question makes perfect sense. Some people feel, because of sickness or injury, that they can no longer work in the same way that they were able to work when they were much younger. They are ready to stop working and receive disability, a benefit for which they paid “into” for years. They want to avoid a gap in money coming into the household between the time they stop working and the time they begin to receive disability benefits. Other people have determined that the money they might receive from Social Security disability will not be sufficient to pay their ongoing debts. Therefore, they wish to “supplement” their monthly Social Security disability benefit by working. Others, who have stopped working due to illness or injury, begin to feel better after a while. They want to test their ability to work while their disability application is being considered.
The answer to the question is complicated. Social Security’s federal disability programs are rooted in the concept that a person who is too sick or injured to engage in work activity should receive disability payments. So what is “work activity” in the Social Security world?
The term “work” is commonly understood to mean the performance of duties for money. Under this definition, earning any money in exchange for working would disqualify a person from receiving Social Security disability. Social Security does not do this. In fact, Social Security does not even use the term “work.” Instead, it uses anther term called “substantial gainful activity” (sometimes known as “SGA”). In order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits a person must not be able to perform substantial gainful activity due to a severe medically determinable impairment. Social Security defines substantial gainful activity as someone who is earning more than a certain amount of money a month. The ceiling on earnings changes yearly. In 2018, the amount for non-blind persons is $1,180 gross (before deduction for taxes) a month. The amount for blind individuals is $1,970 gross a month. So, if a person is earning over the ceiling, Social Security would find that person is able to engage in substantial gainful activity and therefore not entitled to benefits. In the Social Security world then, “work activity” is “substantial gainful activity.”
Social Security supports a person’s attempt to return to the work force after that person has filed an application for Social Security disability. This support is shown through an administrative regulation known as an unsuccessful work attempt. In order to qualify for an unsuccessful work attempt, a Social Security disability applicant must first have a break in the “continuity of their work.” The break in work must have been for at least 30 days consecutive days. The break must have been caused by the medical impairments which form the basis of the disability claim. If, after the break, the person retuned to the work force and earned over the substantial gainful activity amount, that period of time will not be counted against the person if, the work the person was doing lasted no more than six months and stopped because of that person’s impairment or because of the removal of special conditions which allowed that person to work. (For more information see 20 CFR 404.1573(c).)
Social Security also considers whether the substantial gainful activity a person is performing is competitive employment or performed under special circumstances. If the work is not competitive but rather performed in the context of a sheltered workshop or under special circumstance then that work will not be considered substantial gainful activity. Similarly, persons in the military who have impairments are often paid full pay even when they work part time or are in a therapy program. This work will also not be considered as substantial gainful activity.
If a person’s work is being subsidized so that the true value of the work they are actually doing, when compared to the same work performed by unimpaired persons, is less than the actual amount paid to the person with impairments then that part of the pay which is subsidized is not considered substantial gainful activity.