The Social Security Administration recognizes that monthly disability benefits aren't always enough to cover basic costs such as housing, so you can work up to a certain amount while receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
The rules for working while on SSDI and SSI are different. SSDI is an insurance program—when you work and pay taxes, you're paying "premiums" in exchange for coverage. SSI is a needs-based program available to people with limited income and resources. If you're thinking of returning to work, make sure you know which type of benefit you're receiving.
You're allowed to work while receiving SSDI as long as you don't earn more money than what Social Security calls substantial gainful activity (SGA). SGA is the amount of money you can make that the administration considers to be full-time work. The exact amount changes each year, but in 2023, making more than $1,470 per month ($2,460 if you're blind) is considered SGA.
Because Social Security awards disability benefits to people who can't work full-time, earning more than SGA signals to the agency that you might no longer be disabled. Even if you made all $1,470 in one day and then couldn't work for the rest of the month, by Social Security's rules, you worked full-time in that month.
As long as your work earnings stay below SGA, you can continue to receive SSDI pretty much indefinitely. But because Social Security conducts periodic continuing disability reviews for everybody on SSDI, if the agency determines you've medically improved enough to return to full-time work, you can have your benefits stopped even if you never made more than SGA.
Yes—up to a point. Social Security encourages disabled SSDI recipients to try returning to work, so the agency allows you to make more than the SGA amount for certain periods of time. If you're working while collecting SSDI, you should become familiar with the following special rules.
During a trial work period, you're free to test your ability to work without worrying about losing your benefits, no matter how much money you make.
How long is a trial work period? A trial work period consists of nine months when you're allowed to earn as much as you want and still receive SSDI. You don't have to work those nine months in a row, and you can spread them out over five years. Generally, you only get one trial work period—any months remaining after five years expire, and you can't restart the clock.
What months count towards the trial work period? In 2023, Social Security considers any month where you made more than $1,050 to be a trial work month. (Keep in mind that this earnings threshold is lower than the SGA amount, so even if you're not earning SGA during your trial work period, you could still be using up one of your nine-month "freebies.") If you're self-employed, Social Security will consider any month where you work more than 80 hours to be a trial work month.
After you've completed your trial work period, your benefits might end if you continue to work above the SGA level. But Social Security won't just automatically stop sending you checks. Instead, you'll enter an extended period of eligibility.
Your "extended period of eligibility" refers to the three years after your trial work period ends, when Social Security decides whether you're disabled on a month-to-month basis. During this time, you can still receive SSDI for any month where your earnings fall below the SGA level. If you earn more than SGA in any month, you won't get disability benefits for that month.
But Social Security doesn't want to kick people off of SSDI at the drop of a hat, so the agency carved out a one-time exception known as the "grace period." During the extended period of eligibility, the grace period allows you to earn above SGA for three months in a row while still receiving benefits. After that, if you continue to work at SGA levels, your benefits will end. If not, the agency will return to evaluating your eligibility on a month-to-month basis.
Once your extended period of eligibility has ended, if you're working and earning more than the SGA limit, Social Security won't pay you benefits. But you'll have a five-year "probationary" period during which your benefits can be quickly started up again if you stop working because of your disability. Under this expedited reinstatement period, you won't have to file a new disability application in order to have your Social Security disability benefits restored.
For more information, see our article on the trial work period, the extended period of eligibility, and expedited reinstatement.
If you're on SSI, you can work above the SGA level and still collect benefits so long as your wages and other resources don't exceed the income limit for SSI—but your monthly benefit amount will be reduced in proportion to your earnings.
In 2023, the SSI income limit is $914 per month for individuals and $1,371 per month for couples. Any countable earnings above that amount will reduce your SSI benefit somewhat, and you'll stop receiving SSI entirely if you earn around $1,900 per month. However, not all money you make will count towards the SSI income limit.
Calculating countable income. If the only income you have is wages from working ("earned income"), Social Security will exclude the first $85 of your income from the SSI limit. After that, the agency will only count half of your earned wages towards the income limit.
Disability-related work expenses. You can deduct from your income some money you've spent on disability-related items or services that you need for work ("impairment-related work expenses"). Examples of qualifying expenses include special transportation needs, care for service animals, or assistive devices such as a walker. Social Security will subtract the costs of these expenses from your earned income, meaning you'll get a larger SSI benefit.
State supplemental payments. Some states have their own supplements to the federal SSI payment, which may increase your monthly benefit. For more information, see our article on how much you can receive in SSI disability.
Yes. Social Security has several work incentive programs that help SSI recipients who are trying to go back to work:
Additionally, expedited reinstatement applies to SSI benefits just like it does with SSDI benefits. If your SSI payments end because you're earning too much money but you need to stop working again because of your disability, you have a five-year period where Social Security will restore your benefits without you having to file a new application.
Yes, both SSI and SSDI recipients must report to Social Security:
You also need to report the amount of your monthly wages (if any) to Social Security. The agency offers many methods for you to report your wages: over the phone, by mail, in person, online, or via a smartphone app.
If you're reporting your wages by phone, you need to do it by the 6th of the next month you earned your wages. If you're mailing your documents or bringing your pay stubs to your local Social Security field office, you have until the 10th of the next month. Visit Social Security's website to learn about what information you need when reporting your earnings.
For more information, read our article about reporting changes to Social Security to find out what other changes you may need to report.
If you've applied for SSDI or SSI but haven't yet gotten a decision, be very careful about working. The above rules apply to people who are currently receiving disability benefits, not applicants who still need to show that they are disabled according to Social Security's definition.
When you submit an application ("claim") for disability benefits, you're telling Social Security that you don't think you can work full-time, so the agency will look closely at any money you've earned since your alleged onset date that suggests you're able to work. Even if you're making less than the SGA amount, if you're earning enough—especially if you're working more than 15 or 20 hours per week—a claims examiner or disability judge might be skeptical that you can't work at all.
Because working after you've applied can make it harder to show that you're disabled, many disability lawyers and representatives advise their clients not to work while their claim is still being decided. For more information, see our article on whether you have to quit work when applying for disability benefits.
Updated April 24, 2023