In deciding whether you're disabled, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first look at whether you're currently working. If you're working part-time and not earning much money, you wouldn't automatically be denied disability benefits. But working full-time—or doing a substantial amount of work—guarantees that you'll be denied benefits. Here's why.
As part of its definition of disability, the SSA requires that a disability applicant be unable to perform what it calls "substantial gainful activity" (SGA).
Substantial gainful activity is generally work that brings in over a certain dollar amount per month. In 2023, the SGA amount is $1,470 for disabled SSDI or SSI applicants and $2,460 for blind SSDI applicants (note that the SGA limit doesn't apply to blind SSI applicants). (Social Security 2023.)
If you're making more than the SGA amount per month, the SSA assumes you must not be disabled (making that much money, in their words, means you "are able to engage in competitive employment"). In deciding whether you are doing SGA, Social Security doesn't count any income you obtain from non-work sources, such as veterans benefits, gifts, bank account interest, or investments.
The SSA decides whether you're currently doing SGA as the first step of the disability determination process. But having earnings below the SGA amount doesn't automatically mean you pass the SGA test. Social Security considers the circumstances under which you do your work.
If you work sporadically, the SSA could consider your work substantial even if you're not making more than $1,470 per month. For instance, if you work five 8-hour days near the end of each month when your SSI runs out, Social Security might believe you could work full-time every week.
In one SSDI appeal in federal court, a disability applicant worked several days a month as a substitute bus driver. The court found that he was doing SGA because his low earnings didn't indicate that he was unable to work; his income was just less than it could be because of the on-call nature of the job.
The SSA can even consider volunteer activities and criminal activities as SGA if they represent substantial work for which someone would ordinarily be paid (but the agency won't consider hobbies or school attendance as SGA).
Like low earnings, high earnings don't necessarily mean you are doing SGA, if you are doing the work under "special conditions." (Social Security's Red Book 2023.) If you get special assistance or job accommodations, you can argue that your income would have been lower if you hadn't gotten special help.
Here are some examples of assistance that the SSA will consider when determining the true value of your work:
If you're receiving help that can be quantified, the cost of the help is considered an "impairment-related work expense" (IRWE) and it can be subtracted from your income. Here's how IRWEs lower your income.
If you work and earn gross monthly income that exceeds the SGA threshold, Social Security won't considered you disabled, and you won't be eligible to receive benefits unless you were working under one of the special circumstances discussed above.
Generally, if you're making over $1,470 when you apply, your claim will be denied pretty quickly, without a medical review, because how much you are earning is one of the first things the SSA looks at. (Your medical records won't even be requested or evaluated because you will be considered ineligible for benefits.)
But if Social Security finds that your work activity doesn't amount to substantial gainful activity, you will have passed the first step of the SSA's five-step evaluation process. Your medical eligibility will be considered at the next step of the process.
If you stop working after you apply for benefits (perhaps because you find out that doing SGA will disqualify you), you might be able to save your claim from being disqualified. To do so, you must be able to prove to the SSA that your medical condition worsened to the point where you had to stop working (or had to reduce your hours to under the SGA amount).
If you claim you had to stop working due to your physical or mental impairment, the SSA will consider whether your work activity was an "unsuccessful work attempt" (UWA). Social Secuirty will consider a work attempt unsuccessful only if you worked for a period of six months or less and had to stop—or reduce the amount of work you did—due to your impairment.
If you can convince Social Security that your work was an unsuccessful work attempt, the work you did won't be considered substantial gainful activity. For more information, see our article on unsuccessful work attempts.
Social Security recognizes that whether a small business's net profit is over $1,470 per month isn't always a good indicator of whether you, the business owner, are doing substantial gainful activity. If you're self-employed (you're a freelancer or you own your own business) and you aren't applying for disability for blindness or low vision, the SSA will try to look more closely at what you're doing for the company.
The SSA will apply what it calls "The Three Tests" to determine if your business activity is SGA. Your business activity will be considered SGA if you:
In addition, when judging your contribution to the company, the SSA will deduct any "unincurred business expenses" and impairment-related work expenses from your net earnings.
Unincurred business expenses are expenses that you don't pay for—that is, contributions made by others. For example, a friend may volunteer for your business to help you out, or you may receive equipment through a vocational training program.
To get a more accurate picture of the value of your work, Social Security will subtract the value of impairment-related work expenses and unincurred business expenses from your net earnings before comparing it to the SGA amount. After subtracting these expenses, the SSA will evaluate whether you're making above $1,470. For more information, see our article on calculating SGA for small business owners.
If you've been approved for and are already receiving disability benefits, you can continue to work and earn up to $1,470 per month without losing your benefits, as long as you still meet the SSA's definition of disability.
In addition, the SSA has some exceptions to the SGA rules for people who are trying to return to work, which are different for SSDI and SSI.
SSDI. If your medical condition improves and you want to try going back to work to make more than that amount, the SSA will allow you to make more than the SGA amount for nine months (called a trial work period) to see if it works out.
SSI. SSI has various work incentives to encourage disability recipients to try to go back to work. One incentive is that the SGA rule doesn't apply to SSI recipients who have been receiving disability benefits for a month or more. Instead, SSI's general income limit applies, and part of SSI recipients' work income isn't counted toward the SSI income limit.
For more information on attempting to return to work while on SSDI or SSI, see our section on returning to work while collecting disability.
Updated August 14, 2023