The Social Security Administration (SSA) understands that disability applicants often take on work in order to stay afloat while waiting for their claim to be approved. Waiting for a decision takes many months, and bills continue to pile up with no other way of making ends meet.
But generally, you shouldn't be working a lot when you apply for Social Security disability benefits–or while you wait for a decision. The rules are complicated, however. You're allowed to work a small amount, assuming you're still considered disabled. And you're allowed to try to go back to work and earn more to see if you can manage it, subject to some tricky requirements. This is true whether you or not you've received an approval from the SSA yet.
Here are three examples of readers' situations where applicants may be allowed to work while applying for disability or while waiting for disability:
Question: I have MS and a lot of back, leg, and foot pain. I'm working full-time but my job requires a lot of standing and I'm in pain all day. I want to apply for disability but I've heard it takes a long time. My employer is trying to be understanding and has let me take breaks, but even so, I don't know if I can keep working until I'm approved. But I need the income. Is it okay to be working when I apply for benefits? If not, how long do I have to be off work?
Answer: Generally, you have to quit your job before applying for benefits. If you continue to work full-time, Social Security won't even consider your claim because the agency will assume you're not disabled. Even though you're working through pain, if you're able to continue your job, you won't be approved for disability benefits.
But you could possibly reduce your hours to a point where it's easier for you to handle working and still get approved for disability. But you can't make more than $1,470 per month (the limit in 2023), which is not enough for most people to get by on.
Social Security does sometimes look beyond this dollar amount to see the specific details. For instance, if your employer is giving you special accommodations so that you can work, Social Security may subtract the value of these accommodations when it counts your income, meaning that you might be able to make somewhat more than $1,470 per month.
On the other hand, if you make minimum wage and are working 25 hours a week, Social Security may use that as evidence that you can work–even if you make under $1,470 per month–and that you aren't disabled. (For the details, see our article on quitting work when you apply for disability.)
Oh, and you don't have to have not worked for any length of time. You can apply for disability on the same day you quit your job due to your medical condition. Social Security, however, will ultimately be the one to decide on what date you became disabled and unable to work.
Question: I quit working in April 2022 and applied for disability for bipolar. I was approved in October 2022. But before I found out I was approved, I went back to my old job in August and made $800 that month, and in September I made $1,500. In October I stopped working again. When I went to sign papers for my mom to be the payee, they wanted my paycheck stubs. Is that one month where I worked over the SGA amount going to hurt my claim?
Answer: You're right that your work in September was over the amount that counts as "substantial gainful activity" (SGA). For non-blind people, anything above $1,470 (in 2023) is over the SGA amount. Any work you do after you apply for Social Security disability and after you start receiving Social Security disability must generally be under the SGA amount.
But, if you went back to work and then had to quit or reduce your hours because of your disability, your work can qualify as an "unsuccessful work attempt." If it does, it won't prevent you from getting disability benefits for the months you worked.
So, if you reduced your work below the SGA level because of limitations caused by your bipolar disorder, your work in September could be treated as an unsuccessful work attempt (UWA). To qualify as a UWA, your disorder must have caused you to reduce your hours because either:
You may find our article on unsuccessful work attempts helpful in determining if your work in August and September met the qualifications for being an unsuccessful work attempt. If you're denied disability benefits after you submit your payroll documentation because you worked while waiting for a decision, consider speaking to a disability lawyer.
Question: I stopped working on January 15, 2021 and filed for disability right away. But over a year later, I still didn't have a decision and went back to work on March 1, 2022 to see if I could handle it. I was denied benefits on April 3, 2022 and appealed right away. But I'm still working, seven months later. If I'm approved on appeal for benefits with an onset date of January 15, 2021, will my work be protected under the trial work period rules?
Answer: Disability applicants who have waited a long time for a decision on their disability applications usually feel a great deal of financial pressure to return to some kind of work. Luckily, you might be able to try to go back to work without losing your chance at benefits, thanks to the nine-month trial work period. But in most cases, a trial work period can start only after 12 months of disability.
Once you've been disabled for one year after the onset of your disability (your EOD, or established onset date), any work you perform after that date is protected under the trial work period rules IF the work occurs after your eventual "date of entitlement." (This is true whether you've received an approval or not at the time you start working.)
Your date of entitlement is five months after the date that Social Security sets as the onset of your disability, because of the five-month waiting period. In your case, if you're approved with an onset date of January 15, 2021, your date of entitlement (DOE) would be July 1, 2021. And you say returned to work in February 2022. Because you returned to work both 12 months after your onset date and after your date of entitlement, your work would be protected under the trial work period rules. The SSA wouldn't deny your claim due to your 2022 work.
On the other hand, because one of the requirements for collecting benefits is that your disability must have lasted one year (or result in your death), if you had started working within a year of your onset date, you would have become ineligible for benefits (unless your work counted as an unsuccessful work attempt, as discussed above).
And it gets more complicated still: the rules change once you're approved for benefits. After you're approved for benefits and past your five-month waiting period, any work you do is protected by the trial work rules, even if your return to work is within 12 months of your disability onset date.
Updated April 21, 2023