Social Security

Can I Work and Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits?

By Beth Laurence, J.D., University of California, Hastings College of the Law

Whether you can work and claim disability depends on how many hours you are working and how much money you make.

Working Full Time When You Apply for SSDI or SSI Disability

If you are working full time when you apply for either Social Security or SSI disability benefits, Social Security will not consider you disabled. This is because not being able to work a substantial amount of time is part of Social Security’s definition of disability. It doesn’t matter whether you are working through pain or fatigue; your application won’t even advance to the part of the disability evaluation process where your medical condition is assessed.

Working Part Time When You Apply for SSDI or SSI Disability

Depending on how much money you make, you can be working part time when you apply for benefits. Technically, you can still be considered disabled if your earnings are under $1,170 per month (in 2017), or $1,950 for blind applicants. This is called the "substantial gainful activity” (“SGA”) limit, and it increases a bit each year. That said, if you are working close to this amount, or even making $800 or $900 a month, Social Security will look closely at what you are doing to see if you could maintain full-time work. Especially in today’s economy, if you are working part time, a claims examiner at Social Security might assume you are working part time only because you can’t find a full-time job.

Working While You Wait for SSDI or SSI Disability

The same rule applies when you are waiting to hear whether your disability benefits are approved: you cannot work over the substantial gainful activity amount. Since it will take months or even years to get a decision, it can be very difficult to not be able to earn income during this time.

If you do attempt to go back to work and you work more than the SGA amount, but then you have to quit (or cut back your hours) because of your disability, you might qualify for an exception to the SGA rule. If you had to quit (or reduce your hours) because of your medical disorder and the limitations it causes, your time working might count as an “unsuccessful work attempt,” and then Social Security wouldn’t use it as evidence that you can work. To qualify, your illness or condition must have caused you to stop working because you couldn't physically or mentally do the work, because your doctor said you weren’t allowed to do the work, or because the job changed so that it no longer accommodated your disability (for instance, a special accommodation allowing you to rest every hour was removed).

Weighing the Risks of Working

If you work over the SGA amount while you’re waiting for disability benefits and your work doesn’t qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt, you run the risk of having Social Security deny you right away. While it’s difficult to make ends meet while waiting for a disability determination, many disability applicants are just better off not working, or working a very minimal amount, while they await a decision.

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