In the realm of Social Security disability, an unsuccessful work attempt is a term used by disability lawyers and the Social Security Administration (SSA) as a permitted "excuse" for why an applicant was working if he or she was applying for Social Security disability. (If a disability applicant is working at or above the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level, which is $1,260 in 2020, the applicant will not be eligible for disability benefits.)
An unsuccessful work attempt is an attempt to go back to work that fails within six months because your disability. If a period of work can be characterized as an unsuccessful work attempt (UWA), that work can be disregarded, opening the way for the applicant to be found eligible for disability benefits during that time period.
A UWA is not, as is commonly believed, part of the trial work period rules, during which you can continue to receive benefits while attempting to go back to work. An successful work attempt generally occurs before you are approved for benefits, not after. (But an unsuccessful work attempt can also apply to work you performed after your benefits ended due to work activity and before seeking expedited reinstatement of your benefits.)
If you worked for years and never stopped working because of your disabling symptoms until the date you claim you became disabled on your disability application, your work cannot be counted as a UWA. To count as an unsuccessful work attempt, you must have stopped working for some period of time before starting your new work attempt (the one you want to count as a UWA). In other words, there must have been a significant break in the continuity of your work before the unsuccessful work attempt.
Specifically, you must have stopped working for at least 30 days because of your impairments (or reduced your earnings below the SGA level for 30 days because of the impairments), either because you were forced to change to another type of work or another employer because of your impairment or because special working conditions related to your impairment were removed (see below).
If you worked for less than six months and then left work or reduced your work below the SGA level because of your medical impairment, the work effort can be treated as an unsuccessful work attempt. Your impairment may have caused you to leave because you couldn't do the work, your doctor's restrictions wouldn't allow you to do the work, or special conditions that you required to be able to do the work despite your impairment were removed. "Special conditions" are accommodations an employer makes so that you can do your job, and include (but are not limited to):
Work efforts at the SGA level for over six months cannot be treated as unsuccessful work attempts regardless of why the work ended (or was reduced below the SGA level).
The date a disability applicant stopped working due to disability is called the disability onset date. Unsuccessful work attempts can be used to determine an applicant's onset date. Here's how: a decision to treat a period of work as an unsuccessful work attempt can lead to an earlier onset date (before the unsuccessful work attempt), whereas if a period of work doesn't count as an unsuccessful work attempt, it can result in a later onset date (after the completion of the work attempt).
EXAMPLE: Jacob files an SSDI application in August 2019 claiming an onset date of September 1, 2017. After not working in September and October of 2017, Jacob worked at the SGA level for two months during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in 2017 and then stopped working because of his impairment. If he can't prove his work was an unsuccessful work attempt, the earliest his onset date could be is January 2018. If his work during the holidays is considered an unsuccessful work attempt, he is entitled to the earlier onset date of September 1, 2017. Without these UWA rules, he would not get as many months' backpay as he would with an onset date of September 1, 2017.
A period of work after an applicant's entitlement to disability benefits has been established is subject to the trial work period rules and would not be treated as an unsuccessful work attempt.
EXAMPLE: Jacob files an SSDI application in January 2019 claiming an onset date of September 1, 2017. He worked during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in 2017, stopped, and then worked again for two months during the holidays in 2018 before quitting work due to his impairment.
Social Security approved benefits for Jacob going back to the earlier onset date of September 1, 2017, finding that his holiday work in 2017 was an unsuccessful work attempt. His holiday work in 2018, after he became entitled to benefits, is not an unsuccessful work attempt. Instead, it is subject to the trial work period rules.
In some cases, pre-approval work activity can count as a trial work period rather than an unsuccessful work attempt. This can happen if you have been disabled for more than a year but haven't received a decision from Social Security when you try going back to work. For more information, see our article on whether you can work before you are approved for benefits.
If you've been denied Social Security disability benefits because of working at the SGA level, and you want to assert that your work was an unsuccessful work attempt, you'll probably need the help of a disability lawyer to argue your case at a hearing. Find a local disability attorney who can help you.
Updated January 8, 2020