W2 and Social Security cards

Many people receiving Social Security Disability can work part-time without losing their disability benefits as long as their earnings do not surpass a set amount per month. Disability benefit recipients should consult a disability lawyer to determine whether they can earn extra income without losing their benefits. 

Working Part-Time While on Social Security Disability

The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers disability benefits to people who suffer from a disability or medical condition that prevents them from working. Social Security Disability Benefits are paid to beneficiaries to help them pay medical bills and everyday living expenses. Average Social Security Disability (SSD) payments are between $800 and $1,800 per month. In 2022, the maximum SSD payment that the SSA will pay a disabled person is $3,345 per month. The SSA calculates the payments based on a disability recipient’s average earnings over a period of years. The SSA calls this the recipient’s average indexed monthly earnings. Income must count as social security earnings to be included in the recipient’s average indexed monthly earnings. 

Although the SSA bases recipients’ disability payments on their past average income, their payments will be less than they are used to making. SSD payments are not designed to completely replace a recipient’s previous income. Disability recipients may decide that they need additional income to help support themselves and their families. Some people with disabilities might consider working part-time to supplement their income. However, the SSA has rules about part-time work and disabilities. Disability recipients can only make up to a certain amount of money each month without jeopardizing their disability benefits status. SSA sets a substantial gainful activity income limit that benefit recipients cannot exceed and continue receiving their payments.  

Substantial Gainful Activity

Disability recipients can work part-time without affecting their benefits as long as their income does not exceed the limitation for substantial gainful activity. Substantial gainful activity, or SGA, is the set maximum monthly wage that helps the SSA determine whether recipients’ disabilities prevent them from earning a living. The SSA assumes that the recipients’ disability no longer prevents them from supporting themselves through gainful employment if disability recipients’ earnings exceed the SGA limit each month 

The SGA limit for 2022 is $1,350 of income a month. However, when recipients make more than $970 a month, they enter a “trial work period”. If they make too much money for too many months during the trial work period, they will lose their benefits. While recipients can work part-time while receiving disability benefits, the SSA rules are complicated and recipients run the risk of accidentally losing their benefits. Many disability recipients choose not to work while receiving benefits to avoid accidentally earning too much money. If recipients want to work, they may consider consulting a disability attorney to ensure they follow the proper steps to keep their benefits.  

Impairment-Related Work Expense Deductions

Disability recipients can earn more than the substantial gainful activity income limit of $1,350 a month if they deduct impairment-related work expenses from their income. The SSA allows recipients to deduct any impairment-related work expenses from their SGA income. When disability recipients return to work, they may need special accommodations to carry out their duties. If they need special equipment, such as braces or a specific chair, to perform at work they can deduct the purchase price from their earnings. Recipients can deduct out of pocket expenses for:

  • medicine
  • medical supplies
  •  medical devices
  • service animals
  • disposable items such as bandages and syringes
  • some doctor’s visits and other care services necessary for preparation to return to work
  • some transportation costs associated with getting to and from work
  • modifications to recipients’ homes, cars, or vans that are necessary for them to work 

Trial Work Period

The trial work period is a program the Social Security Administration promotes to help disability recipients become self-supporting. It allows recipients to test their ability to return to work without losing their benefits. The trial work period acts as an exception to the substantial gainful activity income limit. During the trial work period, recipients can receive their full Social Security Disability benefits regardless of how much they are earning. However, they must make sure they report their work to the Social Security Administration. Further, the trial work period only applies while the recipients still have a disability.

In 2022, a trial work month is any month in which the recipient earns more than $970. If recipients are self-employed, a trial work month is any month they earn $970, after business expenses, or work more than 80 hours for their own business. The trial work period lasts until the recipients have used nine cumulative trial work months within a sixty-month period. Recipients do not have to earn $970 a month consistently to lose their benefits. If they make $970 or more per month nine times in five years, the SSA will suspend their disability payments.

Extended Period of Eligibility

When disability recipients reach their trial work period limit, they enter into an extended period of eligibility. They have 36 months to work and still receive benefits for any month they do not have “substantial” earnings. In 2022, the SSA considers earnings over $1,350 to be substantial. The amount increases to $2,260 a month if the recipient is blind.  

Expedited Reinstatement

Disability recipients can ask the SSA to restart their benefits at any time during the five years following their loss due to substantial earnings. If recipients cannot continue working because of their disability, and their earnings drop below the substantial earnings threshold, they can ask for expedited reinstatement of their benefits. In an expedited reinstatement situation, recipients do not need to file a new application and wait for the SSA to review their medical conditions. Instead, the SSA will base its reinstatement of benefits on the recipients’ previously filed application. 

Disability recipients need to make sure they report their work and intentions to the SSA if they want to take advantage of the trial work period. Recipients should immediately report to the SSA if they start or stop work, their duties, hours, or pay changes, or if they begin paying disability-related expenses for work.

Recipients can report any of these changes to the SSA by phone, mail, or in person. They can also report their monthly wages online by using their My Social Security account.

Ticket to Work Program

For disability recipients who want to work and gain financial independence, the Social Security Administration offers a ticket to work program. The program supports career development for Social Security disability beneficiaries aged eighteen through sixty-four. It is free and voluntary and is a good fit for recipients who want to improve their earning potential and find long-term success in the workplace. The ultimate goal for disability recipients participating in the Ticket to Work Program is to end their dependence on disability benefits by securing and maintaining full-time employment.  

Ticket to Work connects disability recipients with free employment services that help them:

  • Determine if they are ready to return to work
  • Prepare for work
  • Find a job
  • Maintain success while working
  • Career counseling services
  • Vocational rehabilitation
  • Training from authorized Ticket to Work service providers

The Social Security Administration works with service providers such as various Employment Networks (EN) or Illinois’s Vocational Rehabilitation agency. Recipients can choose the service provider they would like to work with and, whichever they choose, it will serve as an important part of their “employment team.” 

How to Enroll in the Ticket to Work Program

Disability recipients can take the first step of participating in the Ticket to Work Program by calling the Ticket to Work Helpline to verify their eligibility. The Social Security Administration service representatives can answer the recipients’ questions or address their concerns. The representatives can mail a list of service providers to disability recipients or recipients can use the Find Help Tool on the SAA’s website. The Find Help Tool provides recipients with a customized list of providers.

After contacting the SSA and receiving a list of potential service providers, recipients should decide which service provider is right for them. Disability recipients can use the “Finding an EN and Assigning Your Ticket Worksheet” to keep track of the ENs they are interested in. The worksheet also provides a list of questions for recipients to ask potential providers. Some ENs are part of Illinois’s public workforce system. They provide additional employment support services, including training programs and special programs for youth in transition and veterans. Once recipients chose a service provider, the two work together to develop a plan to help the recipients reach their goals.  

Making Progress after Ticket Assignment

Disability recipients who secure employment through the Ticket to Work Program are required to take specific steps within a specific timeframe set by the Social Security Administration. First, they must either work at a specified earning level or complete certain educational or training requirements within that time. The recipients and their service providers create a plan that specifies what requirements they must complete. When recipients take the agreed-upon steps, they are making “timely progress” towards:

  • Receiving the education and training they need to succeed at work and their long-term career
  • Becoming and staying employed
  • Reducing their dependence on Social Security Disability payments

The SSA typically reviews disability recipients’ medical conditions periodically to determine whether they still have a qualifying disability. The process is called the medical Continuing Disability Review. Recipients involved in the Ticket to Work Program will not have to submit to the Continuing Disability Review (CDR) if they have assigned their ticket and are making “timely progress” before they receive their CDR notice. However, recipients will still have to submit to a CDR if they receive their notice before they assign their ticket. 

Disability recipients should consider all of their options before deciding whether to work part-time, enter a program for returning to work full-time, or continue to receive benefits without attempting to work. They can consult a disability attorney to help them sort through their options and make sure they choose the right option for their situation.