Social Security's work rules are different for individuals currently receiving SSDI and SSI. (For a discussion of how much you can work when first applying for benefits, see our section on working and eligibility for Social Security disability.)
Generally, SSDI recipients can't start doing what's considered "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) and continue to receive disability benefits. In a nutshell, doing SGA means you are working and making more than $1,260 per month in 2020 (or $2,110 if you're blind). There are exceptions to this rule, however. For SSDI recipients, there is a trial work period during which you can make more than the SGA amount without losing your benefits.
For a nine-month trial work period, SSDI recipients are entitled to test their ability to work and continue to receive full benefits regardless of whether they make more than the SGA amount. For 2020, the SSA considers any month where a person has a monthly income of more than $910 a trial work month. If you are self-employed, any month where you work more than 80 hours can be considered a trial work month.
Once you have completed the nine-month trial work period, for a period of 36 months, you can still receive SSDI for any month where your earnings fall below the SGA level. This is called the extended period of eligibility. In other words, if you earn less than $1,260 in any month, you will get benefits, but if you earn more than $1,260 in any month, you won't get disability benefits for that month.
Following your trial work period, if your SSDI payments have stopped because your income is substantial, the SSA gives you five years during which your benefits can be reinstated if you again stop working because of your disability. During the five-year period, the SSA will not require you to file a new disability application to get benefits. This is called expedited reinstatement.
For more information, see our article on the trial work period, the extended period of eligibility, and expedited reinstatement.
You can begin to work and continue to receive SSI benefits as long as your wages and other resources do not exceed the SSA's income limit for SSI; however, your monthly benefit amount will be reduced in proportion to your income.
Here's how the SSA reduces your income. Both the federal benefit amount and the SSI income limit is $783 (in 2020). The SSA will reduce your benefit by the amount of your countable income. If your only income is from your job, the SSA does not include the first $85 you earn toward your countable income.
After taking the $85 adjustment off of your income, the SSA will deduct, from your monthly benefits, 50 cents for every dollar you earn. Here is an example of a person who earns $1,000 a month from working: $1,000 - $85 = $915 ÷ 2 = $457.50. The individual's monthly SSI benefit amount would be reduced by $457.50. (You can make up to about $1,650 a month, if you have no other income, before your SSI benefit would be reduced to zero.)
Your monthly benefit amount is also affected by the amount your state adds to the federal SSI payment, if any. For more information, see our article on how much SSI pays.
If your SSI payments stop because you earn too much money (that is, if your countable income is over $783 per month), but you are subsequently forced to quit work because of your disability, the SSA will reinstate your benefits without the need for a new application for a period of five years.
Learn more about the SSI work incentive programs.
If, because of your disability, you have certain work-related expenses that a non-disabled person does not, the SSA will deduct these costs from your monthly earnings when calculating your benefits. Examples of qualifying expenses include special transportation needs or counseling services. These are called impairment-related work expenses, or IRWE.
Both SSI and SSDI recipients must report to the SSA:
You must also report the amount of your monthly wages (if any) to the SSA. If you report your wages by telephone, it must be done by the 6th of the next month; if you mail or bring in your paystub to your local SSA, it must be done by the 10th of the next month. SSI recipients can now also report wages with a smartphone app, and SSDI recipients can now report wages online using their Social Security account. Social Security's website has more information on telephone wage reporting and online wage reporting.
Also, see our section on reporting changes to Social Security to find out what other changes you may need to report.
Keep in mind that the mere fact that you are working, even if you are making less than $1,260 per month, may influence the attitude that a disability claims examiner or a disability judge has about your claim, especially if you're working more than 15 or 20 hours a week. For this reason, many disability lawyers and representatives will advise their clients not to work while their case is pending. For more information, see our article on whether you have to quit work when applying for disability benefits.
Updated December 31, 2019