Are Workers Laid Off During the COVID-19 Pandemic Eligible for Disability?

People who apply for disability benefits after a layoff are more likely to be "marginally" qualified.

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Many of the millions of workers who have been laid off, furloughed, or fired due to the coronavirus will be rehired in the coming months, but not all. In what's expected to be a difficult labor market, there will be many workers who can't get hired back because their physical or mental impairments make them less competitive in lean times, and they may have a tough time finding a new type of work due to their impairments or a lack of job skills.

Some of these laid-off workers will apply for disability over the next few months, typically after their unemployment benefits run out. (Why should they wait? Individuals who collect unemployment are supposed to be ready and available to perform work, but to qualify for Social Security or SSI disability, applicants need to be unable to perform any job.)

Can these laid-off employees get approved for SSDI or SSI disability benefits? It won't be easy, but those who are older are more likely to qualify.

How Can Workers Who Are Laid-Off Be Disabled?

Some who are skeptical of the federal government's disability programs—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplement Security Income (SSI)—wonder how people who were able to work can expect to qualify for disability benefits after COVID-19 layoffs.

For many, the story is complicated. Low-end workers in particular, who often have limited job skills and work physically challenging jobs, often ignore ailments while continuing to work because they need the money and/or can't afford to go to the doctor. These folks may have been working through pain and discomfort for months or years just to make it to the next paycheck. Couple that with losing health care benefits and medical treatment after a job loss, and they are now less likely to be able to work a wide range of jobs.

Most of these workers will seek reemployment, but many will have a tough time getting work when the labor market is slack, meaning that competition for jobs will be fierce. Some will have difficulty because they are older; for others, it will be because they need accommodations to do their jobs and employers are no longer willing to provide them. Still, others won't have the job skills or ability to perform the available jobs. These workers are often the first to go when the economy worsens and the last to be hired back because of competition for a limited number of jobs.

People who apply for disability benefits after they get laid off are more likely to be what Social Security considers "marginally" qualified for disability benefits. Though they have serious medical conditions, Social Security is likely to think there is some work that they can do. People in this group often have factors in common that decrease their chances of getting disability benefits: the kinds of medical conditions that are difficult to prove, poor access to health care and a lack of medical records, uneven work history, or young age.

Common Medical Conditions of Laid-Off Workers

Disability claimants (applicants) who apply for SSDI or SSI benefits in times of high unemployment are less likely to have severe physical impairments and more likely to apply for disability for conditions such as depression or anxiety. It can be difficult to convince disability examiners that a mental condition truly prevents someone from working, especially without medical records from therapists or psychiatrists going back many years, so these claims are harder to get approved.

This may be a problem for women seeking disability benefits post coronavirus; a higher percentage of women have the kinds of mental claims that are more difficult to get approved. And it's not unlikely that the majority of claimants who apply for disability in the coming months will be women. According to the Labor Department, 60% of the layoffs due to coronavirus have been for jobs held by women.

It's a similar story for younger workers, who are less likely to have severely limiting conditions like congestive heart failure or COPD, and more likely to apply for mental conditions or musculoskeletal impairments like back pain. Claimants who apply for disability based on a back problem like degenerative disc disease or a herniated disc typically have a harder time getting approved.

Lack of Health Care for Laid-Off Workers

Not surprisingly, claimants who apply for disability benefits in a down economy are generally poorer than the average disability claimant and less likely to have access to medical care. These claimants may have worked intermittently or earned low wages, so they are more likely to meet SSI's financial eligibility requirements, but they have a harder time meeting Social Security's medical requirements. Claimants who haven't regularly seen a doctor for their medical condition have a harder time convincing Social Security that they have serious conditions, partly due to a lack of comprehensive medical records. Additionally, a Social Security judge or examiner won't know whether their conditions could quickly improve with medical treatment.

In a survey we took of our readers, SSI applicants, whose income is generally quite low, were four times as likely to not have seen a doctor for their medical condition in the year before they applied than SSDI applicants were. Not having a medical history and a supportive doctor who can document a claimant's limitations can make a big difference in being approved or denied for disability benefits.

Work History Is Important After Layoffs

Claims examiners and judges like to see a solid work history of full-time work; it tells them that the claimant is a hard worker who would rather work than receive disability benefits. This can lend credibility to an applicant's claim of no longer being able to work. In contrast, a lifetime of sporadic work can suggest to a claims examiner or disability judge that the claimant lacks the motivation to work. Some claimants who apply for disability after a period of unemployment have a history of intermittent, low-wage jobs; this can hurt their chances of getting benefits, particularly SSDI.

Who Has a Good Chance of Getting Disability Benefits After a Lay Off?

Does anyone in this group have a better chance of getting disability benefits? Yes, in fact, older workers, particularly workers over age 55, have a better than average chance of getting disability benefits after losing their job. This is fortunate, since AARP research has found that older workers are particularly vulnerable to layoffs in uncertain times and have more difficulty getting rehired. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70% of workers age 55 and older aren't able to work from home, meaning they have likely already lost their jobs due to the coronavirus shutdowns if they weren't essential workers.

Social Security's rules expect younger workers to be able to adjust to lighter work rather than quitting work altogether, but it doesn't always expect the same of older workers. Social Security recognizes that medical conditions get worse with age, and the agency is more likely to recognize when older applicants are too disabled to work. Indeed, many older workers who have been laid off due to COVID-19 worked jobs that required physical stamina: waitstaff, hotel workers, cleaners, and construction workers, for example. These older workers, some of whom may have been suffering back or hip pain while trying to work a few more years before retirement, can't easily transfer to telecommuting or desk jobs. It's likely that many will apply for Social Security disability when they can't return to their jobs. Fortunately for them, the rate of approval is over half for workers age 55 or older, much higher than for younger workers.

Of course, to have a good chance of getting approved, older workers still need to have evidence of severe medical conditions, preferably including objective testing like x-rays or CT scans, and supportive doctors who can provide statements about their patients' limitations. And it helps when workers can show that they can't do their past work because they were doing it with modifications—or even help from other employees—that wouldn't be available at a new job. Younger workers with severe medical impairments who can provide the same also have a decent shot at getting SSDI or SSI benefits.

Getting Help

In cases where claimants file applications soon after being laid off, it's critical to hire a qualified Social Security disability attorney to handle your claim. Especially at a time when thousands of people are out of work due to the coronavirus, Social Security will be trying to screen out as many claimants as possible early in the process, and an experienced disability attorney will understand the evidence that Social Security needs to see to approve your case.

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