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The Work of Working with a Disability

There is a popular radio ad featuring a “life hacker”. In addition to using the parking app that the ad is selling, the life hacker is also an expert at pushing a grocery cart with one hand and using his phone with the other, so he can “shop while he shops”. Many people with disabilities find themselves having to work while they work because the time and energy needed to track the intersection of their employment income and their benefits eligibility makes that a full-time job as well.

As complicated as the rules around working while retaining eligibility for benefits are, a person with a disability who works is almost always better off financially than one who relies solely on benefits. In addition, work provides many critical non-financial benefits, including self-esteem, the opportunity to contribute, to teach and to learn, a peer group and a social capital, just to name a few. So, the best approach might be to educate yourself about the rules.

I have it on good authority from more than one well-respected acquaintance, who works at Social Security, that the Administration (Social Security, that is, not any particular president’s) actually wants its beneficiaries to work. People who work pay into the system. Even if, simultaneously, they are drawing on it, it is still a win-win. The trouble is that the rules around working and receiving benefits can act like a disincentive to work, even if the SSA did not intend them to do so.

Both Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) require you to meet the definition of “having a disability”, which is defined in part as the inability to engage in Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) which in turn is defined as the inability to earn more than $1,180/month gross (or $1,970 if blind). But before Social Security “counts” your income, you may be able to deduct Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE) or employer subsidies, both of which I have discussed in previous blogs. For example, if you have $200/month of out-of-pocket, approved expenses for your communication device and for your power wheelchair, you could earn up to $1,379/month and be eligible for benefits.

Once you begin receiving benefits, you lose fifty cents of SSI for every one dollar you earn. If you are receiving SSDI and working, any month in which you earn more than $850 (for year 2018), is called a “trial work month”. Note that this threshold is lower than SGA. If you accumulate nine trial work months (need not be consecutive) in a rolling sixty-month period, you have completed your trial work period. Social Security does not consider IRWE or subsidies when calculating whether a month is a trial-work month. Note that you continue to receive your full SSDI benefits during your trial-work months.

On once you have completed your trial work period, the Social Security Administration will consider whether on average you exceeded SGA. Here, IRWE and subsidies are again applicable. Note that we are now back to the $1,180/month threshold. If you did, your benefits will then stop. If you did not, your benefits will continue. However, during the next 36 months, called the Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) , you will only receive your SSDI in months that you, again, do not exceed SGA. Once the EPE ends, your benefits will stop if you hit SGA for even one month, but you can request expedited reinstatement if you drop below SGA within the next five years. After that, you must get through the whole application process again.

If you work and receive disability benefits, following the rules is a job within a job. But, it’s also a life hack. Clearly you can live better on $457 of SSI + $1,000 of wages than you could on $750 of SSI alone. And your $850 of SSDI would not go nearly as far as $850 + $1,667 of earnings.

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