What Does Social Security Count as an Unsuccessful Work Attempt?

An unsuccessful work attempt may help you get approved if you've tried to work while applying for Social Security disability benefits.

By , Attorney · University of North Carolina School of Law

The most important factor in getting approved for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is being able to show that you aren't capable of working, and that you haven't worked since you applied for benefits.

What Is an Unsuccessful Work Attempt?

An unsuccessful work attempt is when you take a job and try to work but you are ultimately let go or have to quit because of your disability. "Unsuccessful work attempt" (UWA) is the term used by disability lawyers and the Social Security Administration (SSA) to mean a permitted "excuse" for why an applicant was working if they were applying for Social Security disability. (Social Security doesn't give benefits to anyone who is working at or above the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level, which is $1,550 in 2024.)

Specifically, an unsuccessful work attempt is an attempt to go back to work that fails within six months because of your disability. If you can get Social Security to characterize a period of work as an unsuccessful work attempt, that work can be disregarded, meaning it won't count against you. This opens the way for you to be found eligible for disability benefits during the time period when you were trying to work.

How Does Work Qualify as an Unsuccessful Work Attempt?

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, Social Security may treat the work effort as an unsuccessful work attempt. Here are some of the details about which work attempts can qualify as UWAs.

Why Did You Stop Working?

Your impairment must have caused you to leave because of one of the following:

  • you couldn't do the work
  • your doctor's restrictions wouldn't allow you to do the work, or
  • special conditions that you needed to be able to do the work were removed.

"Special conditions" are accommodations an employer makes so that you can do your job, and include (but aren't limited to):

  • special assistance from other employees in performing your job
  • special equipment
  • special arrangements, such as help getting you ready for work or getting to and from work
  • permission to work irregular hours
  • permission to take frequent rest breaks
  • permission to work at a lower level of productivity than other employees
  • work assignments specifically suited to your medical condition, or
  • being allowed to work despite your impairment because of a family or past work relationship with your employer or other philanthropic reasons.

Does the Reason You Left Your Job Count for UWA Purposes?

When considering whether you couldn't do the work due to your disability, Social Security will consider questions like these:

  • Did your disability cause your performance on the job to be unacceptable?
  • Were you absent from work several days a month due to your disability?
  • Was your ability to work during that time period based on a temporary remission of your condition, which has since worsened?
  • Did your doctor restrict you from doing tasks that your job required (such as no lifting more than 10 pounds)?

What If You Worked for Over Six Months?

Work efforts at the SGA level for over six months can no longer be treated as unsuccessful work attempts regardless of why the work ended (or was reduced below the SGA level).

What If You Never Stopped Working?

If you worked for months or years and never stopped working because of your disabling symptoms until the date you claim you became disabled on your disability application, your work can't be counted as a UWA. To count as an unsuccessful work attempt, you must have stopped working for some period of time after becoming disabled but 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 your work before the unsuccessful work attempt.

Typically, to qualify as having a UWA, you must have stopped working for at least 30 days because of your impairments. And you must have stopped working because either 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).

Alternatively, you could qualify for a UWA if you reduced your hours for 30 days or more because of your impairments, so that you were earning below the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level for 30 days. (Or, you might never have had a job, and then tried working but had to quit due to your disability after working less than six months. In rare cases, this could qualify as a UWA.)

Why Have Your Work Declared as an Unsuccessful Work Attempt?

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:

  • Treating a period of work as an unsuccessful work attempt can lead to an earlier onset date (before the unsuccessful work attempt).
  • 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).

In some cases, work activity that happens before an approval for benefits actually counts as a trial work period rather than an unsuccessful work attempt. This can happen if you've 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're approved for disability benefits.

When Does an Unsuccessful Work Attempt Happen?

An unsuccessful work attempt is not, as is commonly believed, part of the trial work period rules, which is for people who are already receiving benefits while attempting to go back to work. A period of work after someone starts receiving disability benefits is subject to the trial work period rules and would not be treated as an unsuccessful work attempt.

An unsuccessful work attempt generally occurs before you're approved for benefits, not after. (With one complicated caveat: an unsuccessful work attempt can apply to work you performed after your benefits ended because you worked too much but before seeking an expedited reinstatement of your benefits.)

Getting Help Proving a UWA

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.

Updated December 13, 2023

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