Many disability applicants do some amount of work after filing for disability or becoming disabled, since it often takes months or even years to get a disability approval, and they have no other way of making ends meet. Sometimes this work can cause a problem with getting benefits, sometimes not.
After you are found medically eligible for benefits, a Social Security Administration (SSA) representative will check to see if you have done any type of substantial work since applying for disability—or since becoming disabled. The question is, did you work so much that Social Security won't consider you disabled, or was there some type of exception to the work rules that allowed you to work during that time?
After a claims examiner or administrative law judge (ALJ) grants you a medical "allowance" (approval), your file will be set back to the district office. An SSA field rep will contact you and request financial and employment information from you to see if you have been working above the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level (generally, this means $1,310 per month in 2021). For more information on this determination, see our article on SGA.
If Social Security finds that you haven't been working or that you've been doing work below the SGA level (for example, you've been working for 15 hours a week at a minimum wage job to make ends meet), your approval will stand. You should receive a Notice of Award soon after.
If Social Security finds you've been doing work above the SGA level, you could be in trouble. What happens when you've done what's considered substantially gainful work depends on when you started and ended working, the circumstances under which you worked, and whether you were approved for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or SSI.
If you started working within 12 months of the onset date of your disability as set by the claims examiner or judge (your "established onset date"), and you are still working (above the SGA amount), your claim will be denied. (The SSA will take this to mean that you didn't meet the 12-month durational requirement for Social Security disability.)
However, there is an exception, for SSDI only. If you started to do SGA after receiving a notice of award and after your five-month waiting period, the work is protected by the trial work protections, even if you were disabled for less then one year. For more information, see our article on when working while disabled can count as trial work.
For SSI purposes, your onset date is considered your application date, in most cases.
If you applied for SSDI and you worked before your application date, but after your disability onset date, and you are not still working, here's what might happen. If the SSA field rep feels the work you did might mean that your disability onset date should be moved later than the judge thought, the field rep can send your file back to Disability Determination Services (DDS), where a claims examiner will determine what your real onset date should be.
If the claims examiner changes your onset date to a later date (meaning you'll get less in SSDI backpay/retroactive benefits), you can appeal the decision of the DDS examiner to a hearing in front of an ALJ. If you can convince the judge that the work you did was an unsuccessful work attempt, your disability onset date could stay the same.
SSDI. If you started working after your first 12 months of disability, according to your established onset date, the SSA field rep will determine whether your work falls under a trial work program exception. This is true whether or not you've received an approval of benefits. The trick for your work to count as a trial work period is that the work has to start after what Social Security eventually decides is your date of entitlement. (For more information, see our article on when working before a disability decision can count as trial work.)
However, the SSA field rep could also start a disability review of your case if, when you were approved for benefits, your case was noted as "medical improvement expected." See our section on continuing disability reviews for more information.
SSI. If you started working one month or more after your onset date or application date, and your work is considered SGA, you can continue to be paid under Section 1619(a) of the Social Security Act as long as:
With SSI's earned income exclusion, the limit in states that don't pay a state supplement to SSI recipients is about $1,500 (although your SSI benefit will start to be reduced before that amount). The limit in states that do pay a state supplement may be higher. See our article on the SSI income limit for more information, as well as our article on SSI work incentives.
If you have been medically approved for benefits, but you worked above the substantial gainful activity after the date you applied for benefits or the date you alleged you became disabled, you should consider contacting a disability lawyer. A disability lawyer may be able to prove that your work falls under the unsuccessful work attempt exception or the trial work exception. Contact a disability lawyer.
Updated February 16, 2021