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Can You Apply for Social Security Disability When You are Still Working?

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working while disabled

What are the rules about working while at the same time applying for Social Security disability. Some of the rules are very clear, while others not so much.

Let’s start with the “bright line” rules. Social Security defines disability in terms of how your medical or mental health issues prevent you from engaging in something called substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) because of a medical condition or conditions that have lasted or are expected to last twelve consecutive months or result in death.

As you can see SSA’s definition of disability does not focus on your diagosis – instead it focuses on how your medical problem would impact you in a work setting. I frequently get emails from potential clients asking “do I qualify for disability” due to my:

  • herniated disc
  • diabetes
  • severe depression
  • PTSD
  • congestive heart failure
  • multiple sclerosis
  • fibromyalgia

My answer is always the same. You do not win disability based on your diagnosis – you only win if the medical records proves that because of your medical issues you would not be able to engage in SGA.

What is SGA (Substantial Gainful Activity)?

So what is SGA? Social Security’s statutes and rulings give us several answers.

The simplest way to look at SGA is to look at gross earnings in a calendar month. SSA publishes a table (click here) that gives the earnings limits for SGA.

In 2021, you are presumed to be engaged in SGA if your gross earnings in a calendar month exceed $1,320. In 2020 the number was $1,260. Every year this number changes.

So, for 2021, if you are working despite severe pain or other symptoms from your medical issues and you are earning more than $1,320 per month before taxes, you are presumed to be not disabled and you would most likely not win.

Another way to look at SGA has to do with your activities. If you are in school full time, or volunteering, or performing an activity equivalent to a job that would pay you at SGA level, you would be presumed to be not disabled.

I tell my clients to think of SGA like this: imagine you work working at a simple, entry level job with a sit/stand option. There is no lifting required more than 5 lbs. You have one task to perform and you perform the same task all day long. There are no changes in the work setting and you have minimal contact with co-workers, supervisors or the general public. You would be expected to be reliable with your attendance but the job itself is extremely simple. At hearings, vocational witnesses give examples of these simple, entry-level jobs: office helper, laundry marker, surveillance system monitor, or house sitter.

If, for example, you are watching young children or grandchildren, or sitting with an elderly relative, most disability judges would conclude that your activity is equivalent to a simple, entry-level job and that you are engaged in SGA.

The SSA judge or adjudicator would need to conclude that you do not have the capacity to perform one of these simple, entry-level jobs in order to approve you for benefits.

What About Part Time Work?

In my experience, Social Security adjudicators and judges see disability in “either/or” terms. Either you are disabled or you are not and part time work tends to muddy the waters.

If you are working 15 to 20 hours a week and earning $1,000 per month gross, my experience has been that most disability judges would conclude that you likely have the capacity to earn at SGA level and that the reason you are not earning more than $1,000 per month has more to do with your employer not needing more than 15 to 20 hours than about your capacity.

If you are earning $400 to $500 per month, you may be able to make the argument that the 5 to 15 hours per week is your maximum capacity and that you do not have the capacity for more. Some judges would be receptive to this argument while others might not be.

As a rule of thumb, the closer you get to approximately $1,000 per month gross in a calendar month the more difficult it will be to successfully pursue disability benefits.

What if You Have to Work to Feed and Clothe Your Family?

Not surprisingly I get this question frequently – “I am in extreme pain or otherwise symptomatic but I have to work to support myself and my family. My employer doesn’t know how sick I am and I am barely getting by.”

Unfortunately I do not have a good answer. You have to assume that the Social Security adjudication process can take 12 to 18 months and work over SGA level will hurt (or destroy) your case.

If you are out of work for at least 12 months you can pursue a “closed period” of disability but if you return to work before being out for a full year you most likely will not have a viable case.

As you can see, there are practical issues with winning disability benefits. No matter how sick or uncomfortable you are, you need both medical support to describe your limitations and you have to be able to survive for one to two years without income while you wait for your case to wind through the SSA system.

The post Can You Apply for Social Security Disability When You are Still Working? appeared first on Social Security Disability | Expert Help | Free Case Evaluation.


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