When you file an application ("claim") for disability benefits, you're telling Social Security that you have a medical condition that prevents you from working full-time for at least twelve months, so one of the first things the agency looks for when reviewing your claim is whether you've stopped working at or above a level known as substantial gainful activity (SGA).
For 2023, the amount of income you can earn and not have it considered to be full-time work is $1,470 per month. (The SGA level is adjusted each year according to the current price/wage index.) If you are earning above SGA then yes, you'll have to stop working—or work fewer hours—before you can qualify for disability benefits.
The monthly threshold for income to be considered SGA is pretty inflexible. You could earn $1,471 in one day and be completely bedridden for the rest of the month, but still not qualify for disability benefits in that month since you earned above the SGA level.
Few, if any, disability claims will reflect such an extreme example of SGA. But if you're earning above SGA—despite the fact that you might be struggling to work through severe pain or fatigue—you'll need to stop working full-time to be eligible for Social Security disability.
For small business owners and people who are self-employed ("1099" employees, including people who work side jobs such as rideshare or delivery drivers), Social Security uses different rules to decide if you're earning SGA. For more information, see our article on how much you can work for yourself while still qualifying for disability.
If you worked at a job for less than six months and had to quit because of your medical condition, Social Security can consider your income from this period as an unsuccessful work attempt (UWA) instead of substantial gainful activity that would keep you from getting benefits.
Having your earnings count as a UWA can strengthen your claim for disability because it shows that you tried to return to work, but couldn't.
Social Security is aware that the income level for work that qualifies as SGA usually isn't enough for people to live on. So you can apply for disability benefits and work part-time without harming your application, although you might have to explain to a claims examiner or administrative law judge why you wouldn't be able to do your part-time work on a full-time basis (especially if your earnings are close to the $1,470 SGA level.)
For example, if you're working 25 hours per week making $10 per hour, your monthly income would be $1,075, under the SGA limit. But when Social Security sees that you're working 25 hours per week, the agency will want to know what's preventing you from doing the same job for 40 hours per week—$1,720 per month, above the SGA limit. But if you have a medical condition that automatically qualifies for disability benefits, working part-time under the SGA level shouldn't affect your claim.
You can receive disability benefits regardless of the reason why you left your last job. Many claimants need to quit their jobs when they find it too difficult to perform the work, mentally or physically, while others are fired or let go when they become unable to complete the job duties to their employer's satisfaction.
Both are acceptable reasons for Social Security to find that you can't do your past work. But the agency will be skeptical if you can't do your past work for reasons unrelated to your health, such as:
If you left your previous job on good terms, you might consider asking your former employer to write you a witness letter in support of your disability claim. Having your employer talk about your work performance in the months and weeks before you left can help Social Security understand why you couldn't do that job anymore.
Some people think that you have to wait for 12 months after leaving your job before you can file for disability, but this isn't accurate. While you need to show that your medical condition prevents you from working above SGA for at least 12 months (the "durational requirement"), this can include how long your impairment, or treatment for your condition, is expected to last for.
For example, cancer treatment often takes one year or more before patients can recover enough to return to work. But Social Security doesn't make applicants wait until a year has passed since they stopped working before processing their disability application.
However, some disability lawyers do urge their clients to wait for a few months after they stop working to apply for benefits. For more information, see our article on when to apply for Social Security disability.
The disability determination process can take several years, during which bills keep piling up despite unemployed applicants' inability to pay. Because state unemployment benefits are often paid out quickly compared with Social Security benefits, many disability claimants will file for unemployment even if they aren't sure whether they could take a job if it were offered.
Social Security doesn't have an official prohibition against taking unemployment benefits while you're applying for disability, but you'll have a tougher time convincing Social Security that you can't work if you're also telling your state unemployment agency that you're able to work, but you can't find a job.
Receiving unemployment benefits doesn't have to sink your claim. In the best-case scenario, your disability claim will be approved but you'll receive less in backpay to adjust for the unemployment you received. But in the worst-case scenario, Social Security won't think that you're telling the truth about whether you can work.
Social Security provides two types of disability benefits:
SSDI is a public insurance program based on the payroll taxes that come out of your paycheck when you're working. Because the program is funded by the taxes you pay, if you've never worked (or haven't worked in a long time), you might not be eligible for SSDI benefits.
SSI is a needs-based program that's available to anybody who has very low income or resources, regardless of whether they've ever worked. If you've never worked, SSI might be the only disability program you could qualify for.
Updated October 19, 2022