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If I Work After I've Applied for SS Disability, Will It Hurt My Chances of Being Approved?

There are two basic and important concepts to know - Substantial Gainful Activity and Unsuccessful Work Attempts.

The answer to this is "Yes" "No" "Maybe" and "It Depends." Every individual applying for disability has some unique aspects about their health, their work history and other factors. All of these play a part in answering this question for each of these individuals. No individual should make a decision regarding whether or not to work based on this blog entry alone. However, there are some basic concepts on this issue that can help guide individuals and give them a general idea of how this issue works.

There are two basic and important concepts to know - Substantial Gainful Activity and Unsuccessful Work Attempts.

Substantial Gainful Activity

Social Security ("SS") has something called Substantial Gainful Activity ("SGA"). This is a dollar amount that changes every year. For 2021 the amount is $1,310 for non-blind individuals. If in any month after an individual applies for SS, they earned more than $1,310 gross before taxes they are considered not disabled for that month. Their application will most likely be denied.

Scenario No. 1

An individual lost track of his exact earnings from month to month due to overtime, varying hours, bonuses, thinking in terms of hours worked per week as opposed to per month or calculating net pay instead of gross pay. The result is that the individual has gone over SGA for several months. This person's application will most likely be denied.

Scenario No. 2

An individual's work history is mostly working in distribution centers. They claim that back and neck injuries prevent them from working. After they apply for SS they work as a handyman/carpenter about 20 hours a week. They remain just under the SGA dollar limit. SS will want to know how they were able to do the handyman/carpenter work with their claimed back and neck limitations. This would be especially important because the range of motion and lifting and carrying capacities seem to be the same for both jobs in relation to the back and neck. SS will also want to know why this individual can't work 30 or 40 hours a week if they can work 20. They will need medical evidence showing the individual cannot work full-time not just the individual saying so. Depending on the medical evidence and the individuals statements and/or testimony to SS, their application may or may not be denied or approved.

Scenario No. 3

This individual is 55 years old. Their work history is mostly working at food processing facilities where they were constantly on their feet. Their ability to use their knees and legs are significantly impaired. They can no longer do any kind of work where they are mostly on their feet. After they apply for SS they run out of their meager savings. They are worried about paying the rent. They obtain a job working 10-15 hours a week over 4 days. It is a simple clerical type job where they are sitting most of the time. They earn $600 a month. This is likely to not adversely affect their application.

Unsuccessful Work Attempts (UWAs)

An individual who has applied for disability can attempt to work for an employer or be self-employed for up to 6 months and earn above SGA if:

  • the job is discontinued due to the individual's impairments

  • OR the removal of special accomodations essential to the work AND

  • there was at least 30 days of not working due to their impairments between employers

  • AND they have already been disabled for 12 months under the SS definition of disabled

Special accomodations can be any number of things but they are basically the same as ADA reasonable accomodations. Examples include being allowed to work irregular hours or take frequent breaks, needing special assistance from other employees in doing their job, needing special equipment or modified duties.

Now all this sounds good right? It is good. SS is encouraging people to work. Of course though there is a catch. You probably already have guessed it from our conversation about SGA.

SS is likely going to want very specific information about an individual's UWA. This includes information about the specific duties of the job, the individual's performance, the exact parts of the job with which the individual had difficulties, and whether these difficulties match the claimed impairments and medical records. Most jobs are not going to have al this information in writing for various reasons. This means the indiidual has to testify or attest to SS themselves, obtain some type of statement from their former direct suprervisor (not easy to get) or if working with a non-profit or government jobs program discuss the UWA with them and ask them to document it and what were the specific obstaces. Various inferences and conclusions, positive and negative, may be made based on this information.

Important Note: While there is some crossover in terminology the rules and structure for working after an individual has started receiving benefits are very different than those discussed here which is when they are working before they get any benefits. Some beleive that SS actually makes it easier to work once an individual has received benefits as opposed to before.


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