You can 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 will assume that you're capable of working full-time, and you won't be eligible for disability benefits.
In 2023, the SGA limit is $1,470 per month. For blind Social Security Disability (SSDI) applicants, the limit is $2,460. So if the earnings from your part-time job are above SGA, you won't be eligible for SSDI.
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 $1,470 per month but you're able to work 30 hours a week, it can be harder to convince the Social Security Administration that 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 (for example, if you've had a liver transplant, you'll automatically qualify for benefits for 12 months), you should think twice about working when you apply for benefits.
While consistently making under $1,470 per month is technically okay, you're taking a risk if you're working more than a few hours a week to earn this amount. If a claims examiner or administrative law judge sees that you're able to work for several hours a week, they may be less likely to believe that your medical condition is so functionally limiting that you're totally disabled.
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 easier job. Or a judge may think that you're working part-time only because you can't find full-time work, not because of a medical condition.
Because working part-time can make it harder to convince Social Security that you're disabled, some disability lawyers advise their clients to not work at all while they await a decision on their disability claim.
After you start receiving benefits, the rules change a bit for part-time work. If you're on SSDI disability, the SGA limit still applies, but you now have what's called a "trial work period." This is a period of nine months during which you can earn more than the SGA limit. For more information, see our article on the trial work period.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients don't have an SGA limit—except during the first month they receive benefits—although they're still subject to the income limits of the SSI program. Because of the way Social Security counts earned income (they ignore more than half of it), people working part-time don't have a hard cap on the amount of money they can make. But the more money you make, the more Social Security will reduce your SSI payments. And when you start earning upwards of around $1,900, your SSI payment will be reduced to zero.
Some disability advocates argue that the monthly SGA earnings limit is an arbitrary, unfair amount with no real basis, and to some extent that's 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 before they become ineligible for benefits.
In actuality, Social Security can look at things that affect the true "worth" of your work.
How your work compares to others. Using a "test of comparability," the agency might check if the work you're doing is comparable to the work done by non-disabled people in the same or similar occupation. If the dollar amount you earn doesn't reflect the value of your work—either it's too high or it's too low—Social Security can take this into account when determining whether you're doing SGA-level work activity.
Whether your employer is "subsidizing" your pay. Social Security claims representatives may investigate whether you're performing work activity that's actually worth less than what you're being paid. They consider that some employers subsidize disabled employees' work by paying them their full wage, even though the employees' disability keeps them from performing the value of that wage. For example, if your employer is paying you a full wage but you're only completing half of the normal job duties, then Social Security could just count half of your earnings amount towards the SGA limit.
Whether you have special accommodations. Similarly, some employers give disabled employees special considerations or modifications so they can get the job done. These accommodations can cost the employer money, which should be taken into consideration when considering the true value of their employees' work. Social Security refers to such costs as impairment-related work expenses, and can deduct them from a person's earnings to come up with their monthly work amount.
Generally, if you can't work full-time (40 hours per week) on a regular and sustained basis, Social Security is supposed to approve you for disability benefits. But if your past relevant work before you applied for disability was part-time, and Social Security finds you can still do those jobs, your claim will be denied.
Not all part-time work is considered past relevant work. Social Security won't look at any jobs that you did more than 15 years ago, and any part-time jobs where you didn't earn above the SGA amount won't count.
If you worked part-time—earning above the SGA limit—within the past 15 years, you need to show that you're unable to return to those jobs before Social Security can find you disabled—it doesn't matter that you didn't work those jobs full-time.
Social Security decides whether you're able to work your part-time job by comparing the demands of your past jobs to your current residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of limitations on what you can and can't do in a work environment. If the restrictions in your RFC don't rule out your past work, Social Security can't find you disabled.
Here's an example of when a disability claim can be denied based on part-time work:
But if your past part-time job was more physically or mentally demanding than your current RFC, Social Security won't expect you to return to that work:
Note that in example 2, finding that Clara couldn't perform her past part-time jobs wasn't the final step in the disability determination. Even if Social Security agrees that you can't return to your past work, you'll still need to show that no other jobs exist that you can do with your current RFC.
Depending on your age (if you're over 50), you might be able to use a special set of rules called the medical-vocational grid to get benefits based on vocational factors, such as your education and skills. If you're under the age of 50, you'll need to show that you can't do even the easiest, least demanding jobs full-time before Social Security will award you disability benefits.
But if you can't work a 40-hour work week (and you can't do your prior part-time work), Social Security may have a hard time saying that you could work other jobs, and you may end up getting approved for benefits.
If you were working part-time when you applied for benefits and Social Security says you can still do that work, you should contact a disability lawyer to discuss your case. An experienced disability attorney may be able to prove that you can't do your past work.
Updated April 25, 2023