With disability claims taking 2 to 3 years to wind through the disability adjudication system, I often get the question from my clients “is it okay if I try to work” or “is it okay if I work part time?” Generally my answer to this question involves an explanation that in my view, Social Security decision maker (judges and adjudicators) tend to see work in black and white terms. If you try to work and fail within about 3 months (this is called an “unsuccessful work attempt”), your effort can be helpful evidence to show that you are motivated but unable to perform. If your attempt lasts longer than 3 months or if you work a part time job ongoing, then your work efforts will generally hurt your disability claim.
What about work efforts after winning your disability case? Generally you will earn more money and be more fulfilled as a person if you can work, as opposed to sitting at home collecting disability benefits. Obviously, Social Security would prefer that you leave the rolls of disability claimants, and statistically, 90% of disability recipients would like to go back to work (although less than 1% actually do, perhaps because they do not know how). So what are the rules?
I have set out the specifics about returning to work after being approved for disability on a special topic page on this site. Click on the link to learn more about this.
You may not be aware, however, that Social Security has several programs available to you that help you try to return to work without penalizing you for trying. Perhaps the most developed program in this regard is called the “Ticket to Work.”
My colleague, Chicago Social Security disability attorney Aaron Rifkind, has written a clear and informative article about the Ticket to Work program. Aaron also publishes an excellent Social Security disability blog, which I read regularly. As Aaron notes, the Ticket to Work program is:
- completely voluntary
- completely free
- open to all current SSDI and SSI recipients
With Aaron’s permission, I am reproducing his Ticket to Work article here:
Thousands of Americans are deemed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to be disabled every year and accordingly receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), or both. The misconception among the many who receive Social Security disability benefits is that after receiving those benefits they have to stop working. The common fear is that working will cause them to lose their Social Security disability benefits. While it is true that in some circumstances working can cause the SSA to stop giving out disability benefits, most people that I have talked to have never heard of the government sponsored Ticket to Work Program.
The Ticket to Work Program was a response by the government to all of the barriers that were originally created to stop people with disabilities from working. Ticket to Work (click to view info from official SSA site) was created as part of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999. The goal of Ticket to Work according to SSA was to increase opportunities and choices for Social Security disability beneficiaries to obtain employment, vocational rehabilitation, and other support services from public and private providers, employers, and other organizations.
Ticket to Work is voluntary and those who wish to participate in the program can apply with SSA. After completing the application, SSA will administer a ticket to the individual which looks similar to a ticket for a sporting event. The ticket includes the issue date, ticket number, and person’s claim number. Once you have your ticket, you can then proceed to the nearest State vocational rehabilitation agency or Employment Network (EN) for services. Once the ticket is handed to either a State vocational rehabilitation agency or an EN, they can offer you services to help you go back to work. Hopefully, through the help of either service you will be able to receive a meaningful and fulfilling employment position. It is worth noting that an individual can continue to receive healthcare benefits even though he or she has obtained employment. What is also great about Ticket to Work is that even if you begin your job and find yourself unable to complete the necessary daily tasks, you can immediately stop working and receive an expedited reinstatement of benefits.
If an individual chooses to participate in Ticket to Work it is important to know that you will NOT automatically lose your disability benefits. There are special rules in place called “work incentives” that allow the individual to keep cash benefits and Medicaid or Medicare while you test your ability to work. For people receiving SSDI benefits, the trial period is an accumulated nine month of services within a 60-month period. In 2009, your work constitutes services if you earn more than $700 a month. For those receiving SSI benefits, your work may affect the amount you receive but SSA counts less than half of your earnings when they compute your check. If you want to see how Ticket to Work would affect your individual benefits, you should contact a Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) Program prior to making any final arrangements with a State vocational rehabilitation agency or EN.
Many disabled individuals receiving Social Security disability benefits are under the impression that it is good not to work. They think that it is bad to work because if they did, SSA would immediately terminate their benefits. This misconception has caused numerous disabled individuals to shy away from pursuing their dreams in the workforce. For those individuals, Ticket to Work is a wonderful untapped resource. Ticket to Work can serve not only as a great resource, but as a tool to help people obtain both meaningful and fulfilling employment. You can visit SSA’s Ticket to Work page at www.ssa.gov/work.
Jonathan Ginsberg represents Social Security disability claimants in Georgia. In practice for over 29 years, Jonathan publishes a widely known disability blog, a podcast and several disability web sites. In 2004, Jonathan published a "how to" book about Social Security disability called the Disability Answer Guide. Jonathan lives with his wife and 2 children in Atlanta.