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 , Contributing Author
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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 $1,470 in 2023.)

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 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 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, 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.

Work That Lasted Less Than Six Months

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 must 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):

  • 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.

Work That Lasted 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).

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, pre-approval work activity can count 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 are approved for 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. Find a disability attorney who can help you.

Updated March 17, 2023

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