Can I Work While Waiting for My Disability Decision?

Am I supposed to be working when I apply for benefits? If not, how long do I have to be off work?

Question: Working When You Apply for Disability

I have multiple sclerosis and arthritis and a lot of back, leg, and foot pain. I'm working full time. My job requires a lot of standing and I am 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 until I'm able to get benefits. Am I supposed to be working when I apply for benefits? If not, how long do I have to be off work?


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 they'll assume you're not disabled. Even though you are working through pain, if you're able to continue your job, you won't be approved for disability benefits.

However, 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 $1,310 per month (the limit in 2021), 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 $1,310 per month. On the other hand, if you make minimum wage and are working 25 or 30 hours per week, Social Security may use that as evidence that you can work, even if you make under $1,310 per week. (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: Working While Waiting for a Disability Decision

I quit working in April 2020 and applied for Social Security disability for bipolar disorder. I was approved in October 2020, on my first attempt. But before I found out I was approved, I went back to my old job in August and made approximately $850 that month, and in September I grossed $1,500. Then in October I cut way back on my hours. When I went to sign papers at the Social Security office for my mom to be the payee, I told them I had recently went back to work and they told me I have to take them my paycheck stubs. Is that one month where I worked over the SGA amount going to affect my claim or do you have to work over the SGA for a period of time?


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 $1,310 (in 2021) 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 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.

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 couldn't do the work, your doctor's restrictions wouldn't allow you to do the work, your employer took away special accommodations that allowed you to do the work (like permission to work irregular hours or to work at a lower level of productivity), or circumstances that allowed you to work changed (like help getting ready for work).

You may find our article on unsuccessful work attempts helpful in determining if your work met the qualifications for being an unsuccessful work attempt. If you are denied disability benefits after you submit your payroll documentation because you worked while waiting for a decision, consider speaking to a disability lawyer.

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