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Kick That Football and Find Your Work!

Those of us of a certain age remember the agonizing saga of Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt and the football. Periodically in the much-beloved “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles Schultz, Lucy would persuade Charlie Brown to back up a good distance, run as fast as he could and kick the football, which she was holding ready for him. Every time, Charlie Brown agreed and ran full tilt in good faith. Yet, after a loud “Augh”, he always ended up flat on his back with dizzy circles spinning around his head because Lucy had yanked the football out of the way at the last moment as his kick was coming through. The scenario became an icon depicting ongoing gullibility and ongoing futility.

Last week, a reporter responded to my blog on the Ticket to Work. She wondered whether a person, who tried the program but then failed to get a job, would then be out on the street and homeless once s/he lost benefits. Given the acknowledged difficulty that some people have getting on benefits in the first place, it is not surprising that recipients are reluctant to put a lot of effort into trying to get off this safe program. What if the Ticket to Work appears helpful, like Lucy’s offer to hold the football, and then sets the recipient up, like Charlie Brown, to end up failing backwards and ending up worse off than before?

I mentioned last week that the Ticket to Work (which is basically Social Security’s offer to pay for a suite of job-readiness, career development, and job-search and placement services), is designed to work in conjunction with the various Work Incentives offered by Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. I have discussed in some detail some of the Work Incentives in past blogs. They are not programs, so much as exceptions or amendments to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare eligibility requirements and maintenance rules. These exceptions and amendments apply only to people who are working or are trying to work, and they act as safety nets.

First of all, to speak to the assumptions implied in the reporter’s question, if a person with a disability goes through the Ticket to Work program, but then is unable to get any job at all, then s/he will never lose his/her benefits in the first place since s/he still has the disabling condition and s/he still falls below the income requirements of any means-tested benefits. However, there are many more nuanced situations, and these can be addressed by the Trial Work Period, the Extended Period of Eligibility, and Expedited Reinstatement.

The Trial Work Period begins as soon as someone, who is on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), starts working. Each month that s/he works and earns more than $850/month (2018) is considered as a Trial Work Month. Once the person has recorded nine Trial Work Months within a rolling five-year (60-month) period, s/he has completed both the Trial Work Period and the first step to getting off benefits. During the time it takes for the worker to accumulate the nine Trial Work Months, s/he continues to receive full benefits each month.

Once the Trial Work Period is completed, the worker on SSDI enters into the Extended Period of Eligibility. In this 3-year (36-month) period, the worker continues to receive a full-benefit payment for any month in which s/he earns less than what Social Security attributes to Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), which is $1,180/month (2018). The month that you first work above SGA, Social Security will consider that your disability has ceased, but you will be paid for that month and also the next two months as a grace period. And then, for any month after that third month, but still within the 36-month Extended Period of Eligibility, your benefits will be reinstated automatically for any month you fall below SGA.

Now, suppose everything goes well initially. You complete the Trial Wok Period, and then you continue to work at SGA throughout your Extended Period of Eligibility. But two years later, suppose your disabling condition worsens or your employer’s management or your workplace’s policies change, and therefore the employer no longer provides some necessary support. As a result, you must cut back your hours or, in a worst-case scenario, you can no longer work. Then, as long as this decrease or cessation of work activity to below the SGA level takes place within five years from the time your benefits terminated due to work, your benefits can be reinstated without reapplication. You must still have the same disabling condition at the same or greater severity, and you must be unable to perform at the SGA level without unusual supports due to your disability. Expedited reinstatement applies both to people with disabilities, who formerly received SSDI, and to those who formerly received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and lost their eligibility for that due to excess work income.

Every time Charlie Brown agreed to kick the football, we readers groaned. We felt sorry for him, because the outcome was pre-determined. He was never going to succeed. The gag was always rigged. People are, understandably, a little leery of Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare programs. The rules are complicated and seem obscure to most recipients. But the truth is, the Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare administrations want people with disabilities to try to work and succeed wherever possible. At the same time, they know that getting to a place of self-support through work is a process; and it takes time; and it may include setbacks. The Work Incentives that dovetail with the Ticket to Work provide various safety nets to make the process less intimidating. With Ticket to Work, you can kick that football and start working and you do not have to lose your benefits, so long as everything is put in order.

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