You can work while you apply for disability benefits (and while you receive benefits), as long as your earnings do not exceed a certain amount set by the SSA each year, called the SGA limit. SGA stands for "substantial gainful activity." In 2013, the SGA limit is $1,040 per month (or $1,740 for blind claimants). So it does't matter whether you work full time or part time, just that you don't earn more than $1,040 per month. This is true whether you are applying for or receiving SSDI or SSI benefits. (For more information, see our article on SGA basics.)
Why Does Social Security Have an Earnings Cutoff Amount?
Some argue that the monthly SGA earnings limit is an arbitrary amount with no real basis and is unfair, and to some extent that is true. For instance, someone making minimum wage can work 32 hours per week and have their earnings come under the SGA amount, while someone who makes significantly more (say $42 per hour) can work only five hours per week without becoming ineligible for benefits.
In actuality, the SSA can look at things that affect the perceived "worth" of an individual's work that might influence whether or not an individual is determined to be engaging in SGA-level work activity, even if they are earning over the monthly earnings limit. For example, Social Security claims representatives must investigate whether an individual is performing work activity that is actually worth what they are being paid. They must consider the fact that some employers will subsidize disabled employees' work by paying them their full wage even though the employees are not performing up to the value of that wage because of their disability. Similarly, some employers allow disabled employees to have special considerations to work that cost the employer money, which should be deducted from their wage in considering the true value of their work. In fact, the cost of any impairment-related work expenses must be deducted from a person's earnings to come up with their monthly work amount.
The SSA may also consider the fact that although the individual is being paid the full amount, their employer may not consider their work to be worth their pay. If an employer considers their employees work to be worth half of the actual pay, then Social Security may just count half the amount of earnings toward their SGA determination.
Risks of Working When Applying for Benefits
You need to earn a living, and it can take a long time to get approved for benefits. However, if your case is not cut and dry (as it would be if you had had a liver transplant, say, which automatically qualifies for benefits for 12 months), you may want to think twice about working when you apply for benefits. While technically, making under $1,040 per month is okay, if a claims examiner or judge sees that you are able to perform the work it takes you to make this amount, they may less likely to believe that your medical condition is so functionally limiting that you are totally disabled. In short, if you can make it without working, don't.
Learn more about the Non-Medical Eligibility Rules for SSD Benefits, including work requirements.