Thinking of Picking Up Seasonal Work? What You Need to Know About the Impact on Your Disability Benefits

Be aware of the risks to taking seasonal work if you're receiving (or applying for) Social Security disability benefits.

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As fall turns into winter, many stores and businesses begin hiring seasonal workers to help out during their busy holiday season. You might be tempted by the extra income, especially in this tough post-COVID-19 climate. But if you're receiving (or applying for) Social Security disability benefits, be aware that there are risks to taking seasonal work.

Doing Seasonal Work While Applying for Benefits

Social Security's definition of disability basically comes down to "substantial gainful activity" (or SGA), meaning that you must be unable to work enough to support yourself. The main way Social Security determines whether you're "engaging in SGA" is by looking at the amount of income you're making. In 2022, you're considered to be doing SGA if you make more than $1,350 per month (or $2,260 if you're blind). If you're consistently earning over these dollar amounts, then by Social Security's definition, you're not disabled.

There are some exceptions to the SGA rule, one having to do with an "unsuccessful work attempt." If you return to work for less than six months, and either quit or are let go because of your disability, then you can still be considered disabled (and entitled to benefits) during the period you were working.

To count as an unsuccessful work attempt, it has to have lasted for six months or less. Plus, you must have stopped working (or at least reduced your earnings below the SGA level), for at least 30 days before starting the new work attempt. So, in theory, you could try to take on some temporary work even if you've already applied for disability benefits.

holiday shipping packages

The risk of trying seasonal work while applying for benefits is that Social Security might find that your work doesn't qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt. Social Security might think that the work didn't stop because of your disability, but actually the end of the season. If you can't prove that your seasonal work qualifies as an unsuccessful work attempt, then Social Security could find you disabled only after the work ended. This would lessen the amount of backpay you could get from Social Security when you're approved for benefits (the further back your date of disability, the more backpay you'll get).

Working a temporary or seasonal job could also make your whole disability claim more difficult to prove. If you were able to work the seasonal job, Social Security might think you can work year-round. You'll have to try to prove that your condition worsened after you stopped doing seasonal work (or while you were doing it).

Doing Seasonal Work While Receiving SSDI Benefits

If you're already receiving Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, you might be able to do some seasonal work without losing any benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has special rules that make it possible for people to work and still receive their monthly SSDI payments. But, some types of work can trigger a continuing disability review, or CDR (more on reviews below).

If you return to work while receiving SSDI benefits, you can engage in a "trial work period" that allows you to test your ability to work for nine months. During this period, you'll receive your full monthly SSDI payments no matter how much you earn from working, as long as you report the work to Social Security and continue to suffer from your disability.

In 2022, a trial work month is any month that your total earnings (before taxes) are over $970. The trial work period continues until you have used nine trial work months within a 60-month period. (The trial work months do not need to be consecutive to count against you.)

So for example, if you want to do a little holiday work every December for some extra cash, you could do that for nine Decembers before your trial work period months were used up. Even better, if you make less $970 per month, you could do that for an unlimited number of months. You might also be able to write off certain work-related expenses from your total earnings to make your income less.

Doing Seasonal Work While Receiving SSI Benefits

The rules for doing seasonal work while receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are a bit different, because SSI is a program for people who have limited income. If you receive SSI benefits and do some seasonal work, you'll likely receive a smaller SSI payment due to your seasonal wages—because your SSI payment amount is based on your income.

And you can continue to receive monthly SSI payments only if your earnings (combined with any other income you might have) stay under the SSI countable income limit. That amount for individuals is $794 in 2021 (or $841 in 2022), but half of your income from seasonal work won't count.

The calculations can get complicated, but here's how it works. Social Security doesn't count the first $85 of your gross monthly earnings each month. And Social Security will reduce your SSI benefits by 50 cents for every dollar that you earn above $85. For example, if you work and earn $1,000 in a month—and have no other income—here's how Social Security will calculate how much to reduce your SSI check by. Social Security will subtract the first $85 from your $1,000 in seasonal wages, then divide the remaining $915 by two, and then subtract the resulting $457.50 ($915 / 2) from your monthly SSI payment.

Like with SSDI recipients, you might be able to write off work-related expenses from your total earnings, which would mean less money would be deducted from your check.

Will Seasonal Work Trigger a Disability Review?

If you take on seasonal work while receiving either SSDI or SSI benefits, you could trigger what's called a continuing disability review. Social Security reviews almost all people who receive disability benefits, usually at set intervals of time. Certain things that you do can also trigger a CDR. For example, you might get a letter from Social Security to fill out a review form if:

  • you or someone else lets Social Security know that your condition has improved
  • a new treatment for your condition becomes available, or
  • you return to work and you make more than the SGA amount.

But working won't trigger a medical review if you've been receiving SSDI for 24 months or longer. If you haven't received SSDI for that long, your seasonal work could trigger a review. A CDR generally doesn't mean the end of benefits, but if you've returned to work, Social Security will scrutinize your case in more detail compared to those who have not. Read our article on CDRs for more information.

Be Sure to Report Any Income or Changes in Situation

In all cases, you should always inform Social Security as soon as you start or stop working, or if any other change happens that could affect your benefits. You can report changes by phone, mail, or in person (when offices reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic). Reporting any income, especially earnings you make from working, is extremely important to avoid having Social Security overpay you. While overpayment might sound like a good thing, you would just owe the money back to Social Security, with interest.

Updated December 30, 2021

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