October 22, 2014

Can I Try to Work After Applying for Social Security Disability

Yes, you can try to work after you have applied and while you are waiting for a decision.  Under Social Security’s rules, work that is not “substantial” (also called Substantial Gainful Activity or “SGA” does not count as “work” for purposes of deciding the onset date of your disability.   SSA has posted dollar limits for what constitutes “substantial” work.  In 2007, your work is not considered substantial if you earn less than $900 per month (or less than $1,500 per month if your are blind).  Check SSA’s pulication 05-10003 for updated figures.  However, for practical purposes, I have found that steady, part time work after you have filed your application tends to hurt your chances at approval.

Realize that a judge looking at your case is trying to decide if you are unable to engage in any type of competitive work on a full time basis.  To put this another way, could you perform a simple, sit down, unskilled job for 8 hours a day, five days a week.  Examples of these types of jobs include:

  • hand packer
  • textile inspector
  • surveillance system monitor
  • order puller

All of these jobs are simple, low stress work, requiring no training or direct supervision.  Further, you can sit or stand while performing these jobs and there is no great production requirement nor is there much interaction with co-workers, supervisors or the public.  In other words, these are the easiest jobs that exist in the national economy.

If you are working a part time job, or at at-home job, and you earn, say, $600 per month, a judge might look at that and decide that if you can earn $600 per month from home for the past year, you might be able to earn $1000 per month at another job if you tried just a little bit harder.  This is especially true if you have any other justification for limiting your work to part time or at-home work.  For example, if you are helping take care of a young or disabled child, or elderly parent, the judge might not accept that the $600 per month is really the best you could do.

I think you should think about Social Security disability as an “either-or” proposition. Either you are totally disabled or you are not.  If there is even a slight suggestion that you really could work at one of these simple, unskilled, low-stress jobs, you are opening the door that might give a judge a reason to turn you down.

At the same time, a series of unsuccessful work attempts can work in your favor.  You should always go into your hearing with the idea that you would absolutely go back to work if you could.  Unsuccessful work attempts send the message that you are motivated to try to return to work but that despite your best efforts, you simply cannot perform in a competitive work environment.  If I have a case where there are multiple job attempts, none of which lasted more than four to six weeks, I think such a history is favorable evidence that I can use in my representation.

[tags] work while applying for disability, substantial gainful activity, substantial activity, SGA, unsuccessful work attempts [/tags]

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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.