Incentives to Return to Work Under the Social Security Disability Program

Most individuals applying for or receiving Social Security disability insurance benefits do not understand the many incentives built into the program for a return to work.  The disability program is based on a premise that benefits should be afforded to those who remain disabled from performing all manner of gainful employment (defined in 2016 as the ability to earn simply $1130.00 per month on a regular and continuing basis) for what is expected to be a year or longer.  Thus, individuals who have gone out of work for some period of time, but perhaps not for a year or longer, should understand how attempts at a return to work will in almost all cases prove to be a win/win situation for the disability claimant.

In order to establish a period of disability under the Social Security disability program, one needs to establish an initial period of disability (where they remain unable to earn gainful wages as a result of a severe medical impairment) that will last at least 30 days.  Assuming one establishes this initial period of disability, it is necessary that one prove they remain entirely out of work for what is expected to be a year or longer.   First of all, it is import to understand that the Social Security Administration (SSA) is looking to see whether one remains capable of performing gainful wages: that is to say, capable of performing a job earning substantial gainful activity (SGA), that is to say, earning simply $1130.00 per month on a regular and continuing basis.  Thus, if the individual returns to work earning less than $1130.00 per month, the question would remain whether they might be capable of working the additional hours and the making the additional money at some job for which they are reasonably suited by age, education and experience, where they could be making $1130.00 per month on a regular and continuing basis.  If the individual claimant is able to show that they are not able to earn the additional money, then the fact that one is earning would in no way prove to be a barrier to receiving Social Security disability benefits as long as the individual is able to show that they remain unable to do so for what would be a year or longer.

Even assuming, however, that one is capable of returning to work earning $1130.00 per month, following a 30 day period of being unable to do so, this does not mean that such a return to work will prove to be a barrier to receiving Social Security disability benefits.  An attempt at returning to work at SGA levels that ends within 3 months  or is reduced to a level of employment that falls below SGA levels, as a result of either one’s medical impairment or as a result of removal of special conditions related to one’s medical impairment that had been essential to one’s continuing employment, will be called an unsuccessful work attempt (UWA) and would not be counted against an individual.  In fact, in our experience, a showing that one is attempting to return to work but simply cannot because of their condition will only benefit an individual who is bringing a Social Security disability claim: it will prove to the SSA that they are doing everything they possibly can to return to some manner of employment versus simply sitting back and waiting for a Social Security check to be provided.

Likewise, even if the return to work at SGA levels is for greater than a period of 3 months but ends less than 6 months later, SSA will still consider the return to work to be an UWA if, in addition to showing the work ended because of either one’s medical condition or removal of special conditions necessary for such employment, if indeed the disability claimant is able to show that one of the following: 1) frequent absences resulting from their disabling condition/impairment, 2) the work undertaken was unsatisfactory as a result of the severe medical impairment, 3) the work was performed during a temporary improvement of one’s medical condition or 4) the work was performed under a special set of circumstances.    Assuming, however, the return to work lasts longer than 6 months at SGA levels, then the return to work is ordinarily considered a successful return to work and would cause an interruption to the period of disability being established (and thus would interfere with establishing the year or longer period of time necessary in order to satisfy Social Security’s duration requirement).

Given the above, an attempt at returning to work, assuming one feels their medical condition may allow such an attempt, should always be made.  Such attempts to return to work, assuming they do fail ultimately (and constitute an UWA) will serve to prove to SSA that the disability applicant is doing everything possible to return to work and do need to be provided benefits given their inability to work on a regular and continuing basis.  In such a situation, the claimant would keep the money they’ve earned along with, ultimately, the Social Security disability benefits that may be awarded for that period of time.   Assuming the return to work is successful, then the individual applicant has proven to both SSA and themselves that they are not in need of a disability check and have been able to find a way back to work.

If you or a loved one remain uncertain as to whether an application for Social Security disability benefits would make sense for your individual circumstances, please give a call to our office for a no cost analysis of your potential claim to the Law Offices of Russell J. Goldsmith at 1-800-773-8622.