October 2, 2014

A Social Security Disability Insider Reveals How SSA Views Part Time Work

Social Security disability and less than SGA earningsThere is a social bookmarking site on the Internet called Reddit.com which offers fascinating insight about many topics, including Social Security disability.  Specifically, Reddit has a feature called “Ask Me Anything” where users who have “insider” status volunteer to answer questions from visitors.  For obvious reasons, most of these insiders appear anonymously.

If you search “Social Security disability” you will see that several Social Security adjudicators have volunteered to answer questions about their work. I have never before visited a site where such “no holds barred” information was available and I encourage you to check it out.

I ran across one conversational thread from an adjudicator regarding part time work. The anonymous adjudicator answered a question about how SSA evaluates claimants who show earnings at less than “substantial gainful activity” (SGA) during the time they claim to be disabled 1.

In my own law practice, by the way, I am hesitant to accept for representation a claimant with more than minimal earnings after his onset date because in my experience judges will often conclude that if one can perform part time work and earn $600 per month, such a person could work more hours or find an easier job and earn $1,200 per month.  Further, my sense is that many judges believe that a claimant may be working part time because there are not full time jobs out there – as opposed to medical limitations.

In any case, the Reddit adjudicator addressed the less than SGA earnings question from his perspective as a decision maker at the initial or reconsideration level of evaluation.

First, the adjudicator noted that the amount of earnings represents an important factor – if “we are looking at someone that is earning 12 grand a year [we are going to be] very suspicious.”  I suspect that the same would hold true for $6,000 or even $4,000 per year.  Again, given the current economic climate, there are many able bodied people working part time not by choice.

Secondly, the adjudicator writes that “no one will admit this but in so many cases you start with a gut feeling of “are they or aren’t they” and then build the case from there.”  This says to me that if you hope to win at initial or reconsideration, avoid putting anything in your file that would make the adjudicator pause.  According to this adjudicator, they look at every case with skepticism, so part time work, or a lack of information about specific activity limitations, or a suspicion of drug seeking behavior.

This seems like another example of the “snap judgment rule” where humans seem genetically programed to make conclusions about matters in 2 or 3 seconds.

So, at least when it comes to the part time work question, I think that my theory that part time work muddies the water and makes it less likely you will be approved remains valid not just at the hearing level but at the agency adjudication level, where adjudicators are looking only at a file and have no face to face interaction with you.

  1. In 2013 the SGA limits are $1,070 per month for a non-blind worker.  Since SSA defines “disability” as the inability to perform SGA level work, you could, in theory, be found disabled if you show earnings at less than SGA amounts.
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Jonathan Ginsberg represents Social Security disability claimants in Georgia. In practice for over 23 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.

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