Contrary to what many may believe, the law does allow for those who are receiving Social Security disability to work while maintaining their entitlement to benefits in certain circumstances. The most utilized provision is that involving “Substantial Gainful Activity” (SGA.) SGA is defined as a level of work activity that involves significant productive duties, and that pays more than an established monthly limit.
In terms of working while receiving disability, it’s the second part of that definition that’s key – if you’re receiving disability benefits, you can generally continue to work as long as you don’t make more than the established SGA limit. In 2017, this limit is $1,170 per month. Special rules apply to those who are legally-blind. For blind individuals, the 2017 SGA limit is $1,950 per month.
For those making above $840 per month, however, earnings can trigger what’s called a “Trial Work Period.” This has been established as a means for disability recipients to test their ability to return to work without stopping their benefits. The SSA doesn’t consider a disability to have ended unless the person completing the Trial Work Period earns more than $840 per month for any 9 months out of a rolling 60-month period (these months don’t have to be consecutive.)
Your income is counted before taxes are taken out, but the SSA will deduct any “impairment related work expenses” from your countable income – if, for instance, you require a wheelchair to work, or take public transportation because you can’t drive due to your disability.
The above regulations apply to those who are receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, but the rules are somewhat different for recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is Social Security’s needs-based disability benefit program. To be eligible for SSI, you must stay under certain limits in terms of income and assets, and the means for calculating this is somewhat more complicated than the fairly straight-forward SGA rule. For more information on eligibility and income calculation for SSI recipients, you can visit the SSA website.
The Social Security Administration also uses SGA when determining if you’re eligible for disability benefits in the first place. In general, to qualify for Social Security Disability, you need to be unable to engage in SGA. While most disability applicants aren’t currently working, in most cases you could continue to work while your application is pending – while staying under SGA limits – without hurting your claim for benefits.
In addition, the SSA could conclude that a disability claimant is able to work part-time in certain types of positions despite their disabling conditions - but that their earnings in that limited scope wouldn’t exceed SGA level. Thus, they would still be eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits.