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This article cannot replace a direct conversation with the Social Security Administration (SSA). If you have returned to work, or are thinking about returning, it’s very important to get in touch with your local SSA office. Be comfortable making that contact without worrying that something terrible will happen; nothing can replace the tailored advice you’ll receive from SSA while they are looking at your own record.

Yes, You Can!

Contributed by Alan Harder, PH Caregiver and former SSA Employee

One myth is that you can’t work at all while drawing disability benefits. This is false, both for SSD and SSI. It’s the “cannot work at all” part that makes it so wrong. Going back to work does not automatically stop benefits under either program. In fact, the SSA has many built-in incentives to encourage you to go back to work. Just remember to include SSA in your planning; you’ll find them to be a strong ally.

An Overview: Working While Disabled

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has many built-in incentives, such as their Ticket to Work program, to encourage you to return to work. If on SSD, you can earn up to the amount SSA considers “gainful employment” ($1,130/month in 2016) without losing benefits. If you are on SSI, payments are made based on income. If you earn more than the SSI income limits, then your benefits will end.

A More Complete Story

For more details, read the SSA’s Working While Disabled – How We Can Help pamphlet.

How It Works

For both SSD and SSI recipients, the SSA will provide training and assistance to help you return to work.

If you receive SSD:

  • Your cash benefits can usually be continued during a trial work period for a year or more, regardless of the amount you earn.
  • Medicare coverage can continue, even if cash benefits stop.
  • Benefits can resume without a new application if your earnings drop within three years after your trail work period ends.
  • Benefits can be reinstated without a new medical evaluation if your work stops within five years after your entitlement ended and you are still disabled by the same medical condition.

If you receive SSI:

  • Only parts of your wages are subtracted from your benefits.
  • If your Medicaid coverage was based on SSI, it may continue even after SSI cash benefits stop.
  • Benefits can be reinstated without a new medical evaluation if your work stops within five years after your last check and you are still disabled by the same medical condition.
  • You may be able to exclude some income and resources if you need them to support a Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS).

The work incentive provisions only apply after your SSD or SSI benefits start. If you return to work for substantial wages ($1,130/month in 2016) while your claim is in process, your claim may be denied before your disability has been confirmed through medical evaluation. It is hard for them to conclude that you are so disabled that you can’t earn a substantial wage, while at the same time, you are doing just that.

As part of your application, you have agreed – even if you do not recall it – to tell SSA if you return to work. Don’t try to conceal your earnings or try to ask an employer to pay you “under the table.” Likewise, do not ask your employer to report your earnings under another person’s Social Security number.

Checks and Balances

There are limitations on what you can earn and keep when you are also collecting SSD. Check and double check that you are not earning over the income limit ($1,130/month). If you are overpaid by your employer, you may have to return money to SSA.

SSA looks at employer reports as part of their fraud prevention efforts, but not right away. So, although your employer will turn in your wages, SSA ordinarily will not realize – and therefore cannot let you know – if you’re making more than the allowed income, until your employer sends a W-2 report the next year. The SSA’s computer match may even be months after that.

While Social Security is very supportive and helpful of attempts to work when you tell them up front, efforts to conceal work can bring many unpleasant results. Just play it straight.