You can generally work part time while you apply for Social Security disability benefits as long as your earnings don't exceed a certain amount set by Social Security each year. If you earn more than this amount, called the "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) limit, Social Security assumes you can do a substantial amount of work, and you won't be eligible for disability benefits. In 2020, the SGA limit is $1,260 per month. (For blind SSDI applicants, the limit is $2,110, and for blind SSI applicants, there is no SGA limit, though they are still subject to the income limits of the SSI program).
In addition to the amount of money you make, Social Security may look at the number of hours you're able to work. For example, if you don't earn more than $1,260 per month but you're able to work 32 hours week, it will be harder to convince the Social Security Administration you're disabled. (For information on whether you can work part-time in your own business while applying for disability benefits, see our article on SGA for disabled small business owners.)
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 $1,260 per month is okay, if it takes you more than a few hours week to earn this amount, and a claims examiner or judge sees that you are able to perform the work, they may be less likely to believe that your medical condition is so functionally limiting that you are totally disabled. On appeal, for instance, a judge may think that if you can work a somewhat demanding job part-time, perhaps you can work full time at an easy job. Or a judge may think that you are working part time only because you can't find full-time work, not because of a medical condition. For these reasons, some disability lawyers advise their clients to not work at all while they await a decision.
After you start receiving benefits, the rules change a bit as to whether you can work part time. For Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), technically the SGA limit still applies, but you have what's called a "trial work period." This is a period of nine months during which you can more than the SGA limit. For more information, see our article on the trial work period.
If you're receiving SSI, the $1,260 SGA limit applies only during your first month of benefits. After that, the SSI income limit applies instead. Because of the way earned income is counted (more than half of it doesn't count toward the limit), there is no set SSI income limit for those who work part-time. But the more you earn, the lower your SSI payment will be. And when you start making upwards of $1,600, your SSI payment will be reduced to zero. To understand how this works, see our article on the SSI income limit.
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 the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) 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, Social Security can look at things that affect the "worth" of an individual's work that might influence whether or not an individual is engaging in SGA-level work activity, even if the individual is 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. If an employer considers an employee's work to be worth half of the actual pay, then Social Security could just count half the amount of earnings toward the SGA determination.
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 can be deducted from a person's earnings to come up with their monthly work amount.
Generally, Social Security will find you disabled if you can't sustain full-time work on a regular basis. But if your regular work before applying for disability was part-time work, and Social Security finds you can still do this work, your claim can be denied. See our article on partial disability and part-time work.