This month I received two questions via the Speakpipe app on my blog about outside earnings and Social Security disability. The first gentleman is applying for disability and wants to know how much he can earn without jeopardizing his case, while the second gentlemen wanted to know how much an approved claimant (his son) could earn without jeopardizing his SSDI award.
Neither gentleman left an email for personal reply so I am using my blog to respond.
The raw number that applies to both of these questions is the current SGA (substantial gainful activity) figure. For 2015, the figure is $1,090 per month. For 2014, the SGA number was $1,070 per month. This number will change every year. Here is the current link to the page on SSA’s web site which shows the current SGA figure. If this link changes you can search “SGA and Social Security disability” to find the current number.
So now you know that the earnings limit for both disability applicants and approved disability claimants is the same – the current SGA number. However, that is not the end of the story. My experience has been that SSA treats disability applicants quite differently from approved disability claimants. Here’s what I have observed:
Part Time Work When Applying for Disability
When you are applying for disability, you have the burden to prove to the Social Security decision maker (either the State Agency adjudicator or, at a hearing the federal administrative law judge) that you do not have the capacity to perform competitive work. To put this into SGA terms, we must show that you do not have the capacity to perform work that arises to SGA level.
In theory, therefore, part time work at less than SGA level should not disqualify you from winning a disability approval.
In reality, however, SSD decision makers tend to see claims in black and white terms – either you are disabled or you are not. If you are working part time, the judge may very well assume that you could work more hours – and thus perform at SGA level – if more hours were available to you, if you could adjust your duties to something less demanding, or if you took a different, slightly less demanding job.
Yes it seems odd that Social Security would “punish” you for trying to work but adjudicators and judges are under a great deal of pressure to limit approvals to those people who clearly meet the disability definition. Part time work muddies the water and with very limited exception I think that on-going part time work hurts your case.
As a side note, unsuccessful work attempts (UWAs in Social Security lingo) can help your case because those show that you tried to work but were not successful. Generally a work attempt that lasts less than 3 months is considered a UWA.
Part Time Work After Disability Approval
By contrast, SSA encourages approved claimants to try to return to work. Why? They want to reduce the number of people drawing on the disability trust fund. That is why SSA has created the Ticket to Work, the trial work period, the extended period of disability, etc.
As the rules stand now, you can take a job after being approved and you can continue to receive your disability check along with your full salary for up to 9 months in any 5 year period of time. Any month of work where you receive less than SGA does not count toward the 9 months.
I do suspect that SSA computers will eventually start identifying earnings records where an approved claimant is earning close to SGA but not going over, and thereby preserving his/her SSD benefits but at this point, SSA has not put a lot of resources into terminating benefits of approved claimants who are working part time.
Obviously SSA’s priorities can change over time but currently this is the landscape I am seeing. Have you had a different experience? Thoughts? Please leave me a comment.