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Working After Being Awarded Disability – What is the “Ticket to Work?”

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.

Social Security disability ticket to work programWhat 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



18 thoughts on “Working After Being Awarded Disability – What is the “Ticket to Work?””

  1. I know that most people who have become disabled don’t want to just turn into lumps with no personal goals. The Ticket to Work program is a great way to test a person’s ability to continue working without risking losing their SSDI or SSI benefits.

  2. I’m not understanding this, I would like a straight forward “yes” or “no” answer. I recieve disability (I have for the last 12 years) Economic times have hit HARD and I am slippinf farther and farther in the hole! I am seeking options as to employment that I think I could physically do. Can I obtain employment without fear of losing my benefits or not? How much can I make? How many hours per week?

  3. No, don’t do it. After years on disability I too, during a period of partial remission and financial hardship, tried to return to work. I failed, relapsed as my dr said I would and had to stop working after 6 months. BUT now they are trying to cut me off because I worked. Don’t fall for the trop!

  4. I am in the middle of a lawsuit which is the reason I have become disabled. I receive SSD , will I receive my money or will it go into some sort of a fund ? If so why do I have to pay for my own medical/medications ?? What good is SS / medicare ? I dont even have medicare insurance coverage due to the fact I cant afford $97. per month. How can I get my money from the lawsuit in my own hands? Get off SSD ????? I also NEED to work but mentally and physically its very hard. Can I work p/t? If I stay under the limits am I ok ? Or will I be @ risk of more harrasment ie., loosing benefits ??? Please help with your straight forward info. UNLIKE SS !!!!!! Thanks so much.

  5. I currently collect SSDI, due to Remitting/Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis. I can’t hold a “scheduled” job, because every day is different for me. Some days I feel ok. Others, I literally can’t get out of bed. I would like to do some part-time work that I can do at my own convenience. I need the mental stimulation. Is there a restriction as to what KIND of work I can do????

    1. @Storm44, I think that the most important factor is the amount of money you make per month. Currently, if you earn more than $1,000 (gross) in a month, that counts as “substantial gainful activity.” As you may know, you can have up to 9 “SGA” months in any five year period without affecting your SSDI benefits – beyond that, you run the risk of getting cut off. I do think that the type of work you do can also be relevant, especially if SSA tries to cut you off and you end up before a judge. Although this scenario is unlikely, my experience has been that judges often conclude that if you can perform a highly skilled job part time, you might be able to perform a less demanding job full time.

      Since MS is a degenerative condition, I doubt you will find too many judges who will conclude that your condition is improving permanently, so I would be most concerned about the amount of your monthly earnings.

  6. my wife had a stroke 12 years at the age of 34 a week after the birth of our daughter. She had alot of cognitive issues with bilateral hemianopia (loss of vision). She got disability and we moved to Miami, FL to get help from my mother. A few years later we get a ticket to work letter and we thought it was a God sent, since my wife always worked and was independent. After 7 years to get an associate degree in arts, we end up in Orlando, FL to be closer to my older children and grandkids. My wife interviewed with a work agency and started to look for work. My wife has gotten alot better but continues with cognitive challenges, left arm pain, vision loss, anxiety, chronic fatique and migraines. Short time after we get disability forms to fill to assess her status. A few weeks afterwards we get a letter that she can work and is cut off social security. We went to the SS office and were told that the ticket to work program had nothing to do with her ablility to work and to file an appeal. We filed an appeal, filled out the disability forms again and are waiting for an answer. My wife’s condition has gotten worse due to this failure of the program. We were hoping it would get her back to being productive and in the work force again after 12 years. We called a few lawyers in Orlando, FL and the ones we spoke to are not interested since it is not a new case. Any suggestions, recommendations or referrals to a lawyer would greatly be appreciated. thanks.

  7. So is it better to quite my 1900 dollar per month job, while applying? I have PD and work in a day care. I’ve fallen twice (not with a child, thank goodness). But I’m very nervous and have ongoing nightmares about what could happen. My boss is willling to keep me on – without lifting a child. Or she is willing to cut my hours to less then 1000 per month. Which is the best way to proceed without the judges hurting my SSDI Claim?????
    I am currently applying online, this weekend and want to take action at work the beginning of next week.

  8. hi my name is becky, i am 52 and i have epilepsy. i have been on ss for almost a decade now. am still currently having seizures but could really use some mental stimulation..i am also getting divorced and really am going to need addtl income. do you think vocational rehab would be a good place to start? salso how do i get more info on taking classes (example..medical billing and coding) that would allow me to work at home. i need real info..just not someone blowing smoke well you know where..would really appreciate any help at all..Becky

  9. Hi,

    I signed the Ticket to Work over 5 years ago and returned to work for about 19 months. Even though I notified them about the return to work, they did not stop my check. When I was laid off from my job, I got a letter requesting repayment, but my benefits continued. That repayment has been satified over the intervening years. I returned to my VR plan of finishing my degree under the Ticket to work, and four years and 11 months later I returned to work for just one month in 2011. The job proved to be physically and mentally challenging. I thought I was covered under the Ticket’s immediate reinstatement while they reviewed my case, but I just got a letter that stated they want repayment and are cutting off my benefits. I called and was told about the 36 period of time following the trial work period was the only time I would be eligibe for this consideration. They said they told me this at the time I worked before, but I do not recall it. I have chronic bakk pain (multiple conditions) and have major depression, which both affect my memory because they cause me to lose a lot of sleep. That is why I could only to return to school part time and had to attend online. I would not have been able to sit in class for hours, and I had to work around my distrubed sleep condition.

    When I first tired to sign up for the Ticket to Work very little information was available. My state VR person did not even know about the program, so they had to have a contract employee explain it to me and a family member. Even he said that not a lot of details were know at the time. Is there anyway to fight this. Should I reapply for benefits, or appeal the decision, or both?

  10. The Ticket To Work I believe has failed me. Currently, my ticket was put in remission as I had failed to meet the rules. I had been trying to find work but I guess I don’t have the marketable skills to qualify for anything. The EN I was with gave me some websites to view and set me free. As I look back, I guess I put way too much faith in the system and hd hoped that something would materialize. Maybe I need to just bite the bullet, go through with the medical reviewand hope I can keep my disability? I just have so many questions and the anxiety keeps me awake at night because I don’t know whom to trust.

  11. @Keith

    You are so right, I don’t know who to believe any more, the lady who is trying to find me work, or all the web sites that tell me different. Now I’m heart medicine what I have not been on in over 4 years plus. Who’s telling me the truth about the work program that’s all I want to know, will I lose my benefits if I try something part time. I don’t want to feel like a loser in this world.

  12. The so called ticket to work program is a total failure. I was on disability, tried this program and went back to work. Unbeknownst to anyone, when you go back to work, they require you to send in your pay stubs for the first few months. Which I did. However, this program is a hired separate entity from the SSA and they did not and do not report properly to the SSA of your earnings or your compliance with the rules, therefore SSA does not receive any of the documentation needed. I reported faithfully. And called several times. They claimed everything was fine but in the end, SSA said I owed them a considerable amount of money and they had absolutely no documentation of my reporting the needed information. This program is now dissolved. And because of them, I’ll never be able to pay back what SSA says I owe. This was when the program first began in 2003. I am currently disabled again and cannot work. I am currently fighting for my life, literally and figuratively through the SSA red tape to regain my benefits however it’s been 2 years and it’s still in processing status. I was given the information on the failed program from a current SSA employee. So now where do I turn from here????

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