If I Can Continue to Work Part Time But Not Full Time, Can I Get Disability Benefits?

Question

I applied for disability benefits for chronic emphysema. I understand Social Security doesn't pay partial benefits, and that you have to be totally disabled to get disability. Well, I can't work full-time for sure, but over the last few years I reduced my hours, so that I was working half time when I applied for Social Security. If they say I can still work half time, will I be denied benefits?

Answer

Generally, if you can't sustain regular full-time work (40 hours a week, week in and week out), Social Security is supposed to approve you for disability benefits. (See our article on being able to do full-time regular and sustained work.) But if your regular work before applying for disability was part-time work, and Social Security finds you can still do this work, your claim will be denied.

When considering a claim for disability, one of the first determinations Social Security must make is whether you can do your "past relevant work"—that is, jobs you've done in the past 15 years. Past relevant work (PRW) can include part-time work if Social Security considers it "substantially gainful" work. To be substantially gainful work, you have to have been making more than $1,220 (as of 2019) per month at the job. (There are different rules for self-employed people; see our article on substantial gainful activity.)

So if you have part-time work that counts as past relevant work, the usual principle "if you can only work less than 40 hours a week, you should get disability benefits" does not apply. If Social Security decides you can do your part-time past relevant work, you will be denied benefits. Social Security decides whether you're able to work your part-time job by comparing each function of your past job to what your residual functional capacity assessment (RFC) allows. If Social Security finds you can't do your prior part-time job, it will go on to evaluate whether there are any full-time jobs you can do.

Here are some examples:

If your RFC says you can't sustain a 40-hour workweek, and you make it to the final step of Social Security's analysis (after Social Security determines you can't do your past work), it's likely you'll qualify for benefits. That's because an inability to work 40 hours would "result in a significantly eroded occupational base at all exertional levels," according to Social Security. In other words, there would be few jobs, and few employers who would hire you with your limitations.

If you were working part-time when you applied for benefits and Social Security says you can still do that work, you should contact a disability lawyer to discuss your case. An experienced disability attorney may be able to prove that you can't do your past work.

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