Important: We updated this article in January 2023 to make sure everything below is correct and current. Income is often a huge source of stress for people facing a serious disability. On the one hand, it is likely a struggle (if not an outright impossibility) for some people to still work. On the other hand, there are bills to pay.
This problem is the precise reason disability programs are in existence. To help disabled individuals survive financially while amidst what are often life-changing circumstances.
But what if you haven’t yet qualified for disability? A reader recently asked us: “If I’m applying for Social Security disability, can I keep working?”
Honestly, the answer — like the application process itself — is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Can I Still Work While Applying for Social Security Disability Insurance?
The technical answer to this question is yes — you can still work if you’re making less than $1,470 per month.
That is the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) upper limit a disabled individual can earn and still get SSDI. If you make more than that, the SSA calls it “Substantial Gainful Activity” (SGA). If you are capable of SGA, then the SSA assumes you aren’t disabled and can “engage in competitive employment.” See where this is going?
So, technically you could work and still apply for SSDI benefits. The reality, however, is that if you are working even part-time, the SSA will probably reject your SSD application. If that feels like a catch-22, well, that’s because it basically is one.
What Else Counts as “Work Income”?
In determining SGA, the SSA doesn’t include income you obtain from non-work sources. For example, interest, investments, or gifts are not countable in the 2023 monthly limit of $1,470 ($2,460 for blind individuals).
The SSA also allows disabled individuals to deduct certain work-related expenses that a non-disabled person wouldn’t have from their SGA. Examples of qualifying expenses include special tech support needs or wheelchair transportation. However, even with sufficient impairment-related work expense (IRWE) deductions, the simple fact you’re working at all may hinder your claim.
How Does the SSA Determine if I Can Still Work?
As part of the federal definition of disability, the SSA requires that disability applicants are unable to perform SGA. In addition, the SSA looks to see if a claimant can still work in other fields thanks to transferrable skills. In other words, if you can’t do the job you did before, can you do different types of work? If that seems possible to the SSA, they may not see you as eligible for disability.
Also keep in mind, the SSA sometimes even considers volunteer activities as SGA. This happens when the volunteering requires substantial work in which a paid employee might usually engage. However, the SSA will not count hobbies or going to school as SGA.
Another big part of the disability application process is that the SSA must determine your condition is severe. One test of that is the requirement that your disability prevents you from working for at least 12 months. Even if you’re under the SGA income limits, working barely part-time or light duty, can get your application tossed.
Don’t believe us? Well, the SSA’s website even says as much. “If you are not working, we will send your application to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office that will make the decision about your medical condition.”
In other words, if you are working, why should they review your claim? Because then it sure doesn’t seem like you’re seriously disabled. And remember, these programs are not for individuals with partial or temporary health problems.
You’re Saying I Have to Quit My Job to Get Disability?
We get it! You still need money to live, right? Unfortunately, the SSA may not see it that way on an application. So yes, chances are you’ll need to quit your job before you apply for SSD benefits.
This holds true even if you’re still working despite pain or fatigue resulting from your injury or illness. It also doesn’t matter if your condition causes you to earn substantially less or transition from full to part-time work.
Basically, if you work after your disability onset or application date, you might risk qualifying for benefits. Disability is not meant to be an income supplement, but rather a replacement.
The one exception here is if you have a confirmable “unsuccessful work attempt” (UWA). The SSA defines this as an attempt to go back to work that fails within six months because of your disability. For this to hold, you must show that you took a major work break because of your injury/illness. Then you tried to go back and failed. If this is verifiable, you may be able to use the original date you stopped working as your disability onset.
A UWA is one loophole that might allow you to work long enough to save some money before you quit. But it’s tricky and you have to meet certain criteria to qualify. And if you don’t, it’s another way the SSA might quickly discard your application. Considering that the SSA only approves four out of every 10 applications, it’s a risk.
If I Can’t Work, Then How Do I Make Ends Meet?
In recent years, the SSA has processed an average of about 65,000 SSD claims every month. With that many applicants, it’s very easy to have your claim thrown out for minor mistakes. That’s also why hiring a disability lawyer is a really good idea.
“But I can’t even afford my bills, how can I afford a lawyer?” Good question. Fortunately, most Social Security attorneys work on contingency. So, you don’t pay anything out of pocket until they win you benefits. Plus, studies show that people with lawyers are 3x more likely to get benefits.
But even more importantly, an attorney can also possibly shorten the time you’ll wait for your first payment. If you’re not working and still need the money, you don’t have time to waste on multiple appeals. The faster you settle your claim, the faster you can get back on track. And a skilled lawyer can help you do that!
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
It’s smart to have a free consultation with a disability lawyer if you’re still working but really need to stop. A lawyer with experience in this area can help assess the strength of your case before you quit. There might also be ways to expedite your application’s processing.
No doubt the government makes it deliberately hard to qualify for SSD so people don’t take advantage of the system. But if you do qualify, you deserve to get the benefits you need! It’s okay to ask for help.
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Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes to Cosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit: www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter/X @KimberlyNeumann.