In evaluating whether you are disabled, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first look to whether you are currently working. If you are working part-time and not earning much money, you won’t automatically be denied disability benefits, but doing a substantial amount of work (such as working full-time) guarantees that you’ll be denied benefits. Here’s why.
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As part of its definition of disability, the SSA requires that a disability claimant (applicant) be unable to perform what it calls substantial gainful activity (SGA).
Substantial gainful activity is generally work that brings in over a certain dollar amount per month. In 2021, that amount is $1,310 for non-blind disabled SSDI or SSI applicants, and $2,190 for blind SSDI applicants (the SGA limit doesn’t apply to blind SSI applicants). If you are making more than that amount per month, the SSA presumes that you must not be disabled (in their words, that you “are able to engage in competitive employment”). In deciding whether you are doing SGA, Social Security does not count any income you obtain from non-work sources, such as interest, investments, or gifts.
Low earnings, however, don’t necessarily establish that you’re unable to work. The SSA will consider the circumstances under which you performed work. For example, where a disability applicant had worked as a substitute bus driver, the court found that he was doing SGA because his low earnings did not indicate that he was unable to work, and his income was less than it could be because of the on-call nature of the job. The SSA can even consider volunteer activities and criminal activities as SGA if they represent substantial work for which someone would ordinarily be paid (but the agency will not consider hobbies or school attendance to be SGA).
Similarly, high earnings don’t necessarily mean the disability claimant was doing SGA, if he or she was working under special conditions. Claimants can argue that their income would have been lower but for the fact that the claimant:
- required special assistance from other employees in performing the work
- was allowed to work irregular hours or take frequent rest breaks
- was provided with special equipment or assigned work especially suited to his or her impairment
- was able to work only because of specially arranged circumstances (for example, other people helped the claimant get to and from work)
- was permitted to work at a lower standard of productivity or efficiency than other employees, and/or
- was given the opportunity to work despite his or her impairment because of a family relationship, past association with the employer, or the employer’s concern for the claimant’s welfare.
Individuals who work and earn gross monthly income exceeding the SGA threshold are not considered disabled and are ineligible to receive benefits, unless they were working under one of special circumstances discussed above. Generally, if you are making over $1,310 when you apply, your claim will be denied almost immediately, without a medical review (your medical records will not even be requested or evaluated because you will be considered ineligible for benefits), because how much you are earning is one of the first things the SSA looks at.
If, however, it is determined that your work activity does not amount to substantial gainful activity, you will have passed the first step of the SSA’s five-step evaluation process and your medical eligibility will be considered at the next step of the process.
By: Joyce Trudeau of Premier Disability Services, LLC®