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New Year's Resolution: Use My Ticket to Work

In a Berkeley Mews comic, the main character is making a list of New Year’s resolutions. He writes the list title and the first item: 1. Stop procrastinating. He writes a “2.” and then wanders off to open the refrigerator. I relate to that simple, blue character with a minimalist face. It takes a good support system to realize a challenging resolution.

If your New Year’s resolution is to begin to work, you may be wondering how to take the first step, particularly in this environment that is more challenging due to COVID-19. If you receive Social Security disability benefits, you also have a Ticket to Work. Your Ticket can help you find professionals to guide you—not only through the process of finding work, but also of understanding how you can use Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare Work Incentives to maintain your disability benefits, public health care, and disability services as long as possible while testing out and ramping up your capacity to work.

To access these professional services through the Ticket to Work, you first need to assign your Ticket to a services provider. Broadly speaking, service providers fall into two categories:

  • Your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Agency. The website for the VR agency in my home state of Illinois can be found here. VR Agencies are equipped and funded to provide a relatively high level of services, including (as the name indicates) actual rehabilitation services, vehicle modification or repair, prosthetics (including cochlear implants), and funding for additional training or further education. In addition, VR agencies may offer career-counseling, job-placement assistance. They should provide counseling on how working will affect a beneficiary’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Medicaid (including Medicaid Waiver), and Medicare. While VR Agencies can provide support for a significant period of time while the beneficiary is preparing to go to work, the services typically terminate once the beneficiary has been working successfully and continuously for three months.

  • Private or public Employment Networks (ENs). Generally, ENs do not provide financial assistance for education, training, or assistive devices. Instead, these organizations focus on providing services that are more specifically geared towards gaining employment such as career counseling, assistance finding and vetting open positions, assistance writing resumes and cover letters, and assistance requesting reasonable accommodations. They definitely provide counseling on how working will affect a beneficiary’s SSI, SSDI, Medicaid, and Medicare. ENs typically provide their most effective service when the beneficiary currently has the skills, health, and stamina to begin work. ENs are in it for the long hall and often provide continued post-placement support and ongoing benefits counseling for up to five years from the date the beneficiary first starts work. Some ENs are part of their State’s Public Workforce system and do offer training programs as well as employment supports, targeted specifically towards youth or veterans.

Some beneficiaries, who have significant support needs or who recognize they need to further education or training to pursue employment, may first assign their Ticket to their State’s VR agency and then transfer their case to an EN once the VR agency has closed it. We recommend that beneficiaries interview several ENs as well as their state’s VR agency (if appropriate) in order to find one that is a good fit. This is particularly true if the beneficiary has specific communication or language needs.

Whether you assign your Ticket to your state’s VR agency or to an EN, the first step you will accomplish with your Ticket to Work partner is to create an Individual Work Plan (IWP). Your IWP will contain information about you and your background, including what kinds of benefits you are currently receiving. It will also include a short-term goal (0-18 months or so) and a long-term goal (up to three years), which are expressed both in qualitative terms such as the industry, position, and number of hours per week, as well as in monetary terms, such as target monthly wages or salary. Your IWP is an agreement between you and the EN or VR agency. The agency agrees to provide you certain kinds of supports and services. You agree to make timely progress towards your goals. As long as you do make timely progress, you will not be subject to ongoing disability reviews to maintain your eligibility for your SSI and SSDI, although you will still need to maintain financial eligibility for SSI. Ticket to Work services are free to you. Social Security compensates the service provider based on your progress.

In a Half Full cartoon, a woman sits with her cell phone beside her on the table and announces her resolution to stop looking at the device every three seconds. She begins to count in her thought bubble: “One One Thousand…Two One Thousand…Three One Thousand…Four One Thousand…” You might think from the ellipses that the count will go on but instead she announces cheerfully in the next panel “Phew! I did not think I’d make it!” A good Ticket to Work service provider can help you break your employment goals into achievable steps and provide you the support you need to accomplish each step.

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