Updated January 7, 2019
In evaluating whether you are disabled, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first look to whether you are currently working. If you are working part-time and not earning much money, you won't automatically be denied disability benefits, but doing a substantial amount of work (such as working full-time) guarantees that you'll be denied benefits. Here's why.
As part of its definition of disability, the SSA requires that a disability claimant (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 2019, that amount is $1,220 for non-blind disabled SSDI or SSI applicants, and $2,040 for blind SSDI applicants (the SGA limit doesn't apply to blind SSI applicants). If you are making more than that amount per month, the SSA presumes that you must not be disabled (in their words, that you "are able to engage in competitive employment"). In deciding whether you are doing SGA, Social Security does not count any income you obtain from non-work sources, such as interest, investments, or gifts.
Low earnings, however, don't necessarily establish that you're unable to work. The SSA will consider the circumstances under which you performed work. For example, where a disability applicant had worked as a substitute bus driver, the court found that he was doing SGA because his low earnings did not indicate that he was unable to work, and his income was 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 will not consider hobbies or school attendance to be SGA).
Similarly, high earnings don't necessarily mean the disability claimant was doing SGA, if he or she was working under special conditions. Claimants can argue that their income would have been lower but for the fact that the claimant:
Individuals who work and earn gross monthly income exceeding the SGA threshold are not considered disabled and are ineligible to receive benefits, unless they were working under one of special circumstances discussed above. Generally, if you are making over $1,220 when you apply, your claim will be denied almost immediately, without a medical review (your medical records will not even be requested or evaluated because you will be considered ineligible for benefits), because how much you are earning is one of the first things the SSA looks at.
If, however, it is determined that your work activity does not amount to substantial gainful activity, you will have passed the first step of the SSA's five-step evaluation process and 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 SGA will disqualify you if you are working), you must be able to prove to the SSA that your medical condition worsened to the point where you had to stop working (that is, performing the SGA).
The SSA will consider whether your work activity was an “unsuccessful work attempt.” Generally, 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, the work done will not be considered substantial gainful activity. In other words, any earnings from an unsuccessful work attempt will not be counted for purposes of making a substantial gainful activity decision. For more information, see our article on unsuccessful work attempts.
The SSA recognizes that whether a small business's net profit is over $1,220 per month isn’t always a good indicator of whether you, the business owner, are doing substantial gainful activity. If you are self-employed (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, in judging your contribution to the company, the SSA will deduct any "impairment-related work expenses" and any “unincurred business 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. Impairment-related work expenses (IRWEs) are costs you pay for certain items or services, such as medical devices, you need to work. The value of these expenses is deducted from your net earnings before comparing it to the SGA amount, in order to give the SSA a more accurate value of your work. After subtracting subsidies and impairment-related work expenses, the SSA will compare your earnings to the SGA amount. For more information, see our article on calculating SGA for small business owners.
If you have been approved for and are already receiving disability benefits, you can continue to make up to $1,220 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 rule for those 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 a certain number of 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 actually 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.