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?
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 the SSA 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 $1,180 (as of 2018) 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 the SSA decides you can do your part-time PRW, you will be denied benefits. The SSA decides whether you're able to work your part-time job by comparing the each function of your past job to what your residual functional capacity assessment (RFC) allows. If the SSA 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:
In one case, a claimant applied for disability based on diabetic neuropathy. She worked part-time as a receptionist 30 hours a week, six hours a day, five days a week. She earned more than the SGA amount. She sat for the entire six-hour shift but was sometimes required to lift files. The claimant’s doctor opinion was that she couldn't work full time, but Social Security's RFC stated she could sit six hours a day and lift up to ten pounds occasionally. Because her RFC was within the range of her part-time PRW, meaning she could do the work, the claimant's disability claim was denied.
In another example, a claimant worked part-time as an usher at a movie theater and earned more than the SGA amount. He applied for disability based on spinal stenosis. He worked five five-hour shifts a week (a total of 25 hours). His job required that he stand for his entire shift. Social Security gave him an RFC for sedentary work, which limited his ability to stand to no more than two hours total during his work-day. Because his RFC did not allow him to do his old job, the SSA went to the next (and final) step of the analysis to determine whether there were any other full-time jobs he could do.
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.