Can You Work While Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Can You Work While Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits?


Applying for Social Security disability benefits can take months, even years. In the meantime, many applicants struggle to make ends meet.

Can you work while applying for Social Security disability benefits? Maybe. It depends on:

  • Your gross monthly income
  • Which disability program you’re applying for
  • How many hours you’re working
  • How long you intend to work or remain in the workforce

1. What Is Your Gross Monthly Income?


Social Security evaluates candidates for disability based on their ability to perform substantial gainful activity (SGA). SGA is measured by a certain amount of monthly income.

What Is Substantial Gainful Activity?

Work is “substantial” if it involves significant physical and/or mental activities. It’s “gainful” if it is done for pay or profit.

So how much do you have to make to engage in SGA? The amount changes nearly every year to keep up with inflation. It consists of a person’s gross monthly income (i.e., before taxes) minus any impairment-related work expenses.

Work is ‘substantial’ if it involves significant physical and/or mental activities… [and] ‘gainful’ if it is done for pay or profit.

In 2019, SGA is $1,220 a month for non-blind individuals and $2,040 for individuals who are statutorily blind.

That means that if your gross monthly income is more than $1,220 (or $2,040 if you are blind), then you will likely be denied for disability benefits.

2. Which Disability Benefit Program Are You Applying For?


There are two types of Social Security disability programs:

SGA is consistent in amount across each disability benefit program. However, it affects applicants in different ways, depending on which program they’re applying for.

If you’re currently engaging in SGA, then you will likely not be approved for DIB. This applies to both blind and non-blind applicants.

If you’re applying for SSI and engaging in SGA, then things get a little more complicated. As a non-blind individual, you’ll likely be denied for SSI. However, SGA does not apply to blind individuals applying for SSI. You may still be eligible for SSI if you’re statutorily blind and engaging in SGA.

An Extra Consideration for SSI

Keep in mind that SSI takes into account not just your income, but your household income as well.

That means that in addition to not engaging in SGA, you also have to meet certain household income limitations to qualify for SSI.

You could be under SGA, but if your spouse or roommate is making more money than SSI allows, then you will likely not qualify for SSI.

3. How Many Hours Are You Working?


Another aspect to consider is whether or not you’re working full-time or part-time.

How much you work affects your income. You’re more likely to be over SGA if you’re working full-time than if you’re working part-time.

However, how much you’re working affects your claim beyond your income level. It also tells Social Security something about your disabling condition(s).

How Social Security Evaluates a Disability Claim

Social Security uses a five-step process to evaluate your disability claim:

  1. Are you working and engaging in SGA?
  2. Is your condition severe?
  3. Is your condition found in the listing of impairments?
  4. Can you do work you’ve done before?
  5. Can you do any another type of work?

We’ve already discussed how SGA affects your claim. Let’s take a look at a few of the other criteria for which work would be an important factor.

Social Security’s Definition of “Severe”

For the second step of the evaluation process, Social Security asks if your condition is severe. But what is “severe” to Social Security?

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), a severe condition must “significantly limit your ability to do basic work such as lifting, standing, walking, sitting, and remembering — for at least 12 months.”

If you’re working full-time, then you’re going to find it difficult to argue that you can’t do basic work — even if you’re not engaging in SGA.

Part-time work may allow more room for debate. Maybe you work a few hours a week at a local craft store. If you’re not engaging in SGA, then you could argue that your part-time work is the most you can do, yet you still can’t support yourself.

Doing Work You’ve Done Before

Another aspect Social Security evaluates is whether or not you can do work you’ve done before.

We are best suited for the careers and jobs we’ve trained for. Social Security starts with your past work to see if you may return to one of the jobs you were once qualified for.

Social Security will evaluate not just if you can work, but also how much you can work.

This gets complicated if you’re still working, even part-time. Technically, you’re saying, “Yes, I can do the work I’ve done before — look, I’m doing it now!”

However, Social Security will evaluate not just if you can work, but also how much you can work. Your hours matter here.

Yes, maybe you can still work at your desk job you’ve had for twenty years, but maybe you can only manage ten hours a week before your fibromyalgia kicks in.

Maybe you’re still at the same company, but you haven’t been able to do your job since your traumatic brain injury (TBI), so you’ve been relegated to another job you’re struggling to learn.

Doing Other Work

Perhaps the most difficult question to answer is, “Can you do any other type of work?”

It’s a big question. When Social Security says “any” type of work, they mean it.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a factory worker your entire life — can you work at a desk job? Can you work as a greeter at a grocery store?

That question is even harder to answer when you’re still working. You’re already doing some amount of work — who’s to say you can’t do more, or can’t do something else?

4. How Long Do You Intend to Work?


The last major factor into how work will affect your disability claim is how long you expect to keep working.

This affects applicants for disability differently from current recipients of disability:

  • Disability applicants who wish to return to work one day may choose to file for unemployment benefits.
  • Those who already receive disability may try to return to work. However, if you earn a certain amount of money and work for a certain amount of time, you may trigger a trial work period.

Unemployment vs. Disability Benefits

How long you intend to remain in the workforce can affect your disability claim.

If you hope to go back to work someday, you may decide to file for unemployment benefits while also filing for disability benefits. Although this is allowed, it could have unintended consequences on your claim.

Consequences for Your Credibility

If you’re drawing unemployment benefits, then you’re telling the government that you’re still looking for a job and intend to return to the workforce as soon as possible.

If you’re applying for disability, then you’re telling the government you cannot work for at least 12 months.

This mixed message may affect how Social Security perceives your credibility for your disability claim.

If you’re applying for disability, then you’re telling the government you cannot work for at least 12 months.

Your credibility is an important part of your disability claim. Social Security needs to know it can trust the evidence you’ve provided for why you deserve benefits.

Consequences for Your Finances

You may have to repay your unemployment benefits after you’ve been approved for disability.

Your onset date of disability could even be affected if you draw unemployment benefits, potentially reducing or completely eliminating any past due benefits you would have otherwise qualified for.

Would Unemployment Benefits Affect Your Claim?

Of course, every case is different, and these consequences are only potential risks, not guarantees.

If you’re contemplating a return to the workforce someday, let your disability attorney know if you decide to file for unemployment benefits while applying for disability.

Trial Work Period

Social Security wants to encourage recipients of disability to return to work if they are able. A trial work period allows recipients to attempt to work for a period of time without risking losing their benefits.

Earning more than $880 a month (gross) triggers a trial work period.

Note that this amount is lower than the 2019 amount for SGA. The $880 limit is known as the services level and typically changes annually with inflation, just like SGA.

A trial work period allows recipients to attempt to work for a period of time without risking losing their benefits.

A trial work period only lasts so long. Once you’ve worked a total of nine months within a five-year period, earning at least $880 a month, then you will no longer be eligible for disability benefits.

These nine months do not have to be consecutive.

Trial work periods can be great for individuals wanting to get back into the workforce without immediately sacrificing their disability benefits. However, trial work period rules are tricky. It’s not always advantageous to begin a trial work period.

Speak with your Indiana disability attorney for more information regarding trial work periods.

So Can You Work While Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits?


Maybe. There’s a lot to consider. An Indiana disability attorney can help you determine how working may affect your disability claim.

They can also give you other options for financial assistance if you’re struggling to make ends meet while waiting to get approved for benefits.

Ultimately, you’re almost always going to make more money by working than you will by getting approved for disability benefits. Social Security disability benefits exist to help those who cannot work or cannot work enough to support themselves due to their disability.

If you can still work, no matter how many hours, it’s still a good idea to keep working, keep treating, and hopefully stay in the workforce as long as possible.

But when you can no longer work or can no longer support yourself, Hensley Legal Group is here to help.

Our disability attorneys can help you at any stage of the application process. Give us a call at (317) 472-3333, or contact us online for a free conversation about your disability claim.

Be sure to download our free ebook, Eight Mistakes to Avoid when Filing for Disability Benefits, for more information about applying Social Security disability.