Business owner closing his shop.

Evaluating vocational activity during SSD claims

People seeking Social Security Disability benefits must prove they cannot perform “substantial gainful activity” because of their impairments. Additionally, claimants cannot engage in SGA while seeking benefits. To many SSD applicants, this may sound like a subjective requirement. However, as a Chicago disability attorney could attest, the Social Security Administration employs strict standards to determine whether work constitutes SGA.

Defining SGA

Every year, the SSA uses average national wages to identify an amount of earnings that represents SGA. In 2015, blind individuals who earn over $1,820 per month are engaging in SGA. For all other individuals, the SGA earnings limit is $1,090. These limits apply only to income from employment.

The SSA may find that a person is performing substantial work even if the person’s earnings fall below the relevant limit. For example, self-employed individuals are evaluated under distinct standards, which account for job duties and hours. A claims examiner may consider the following questions when assessing whether a self-employed individual is performing SGA:

  • Does the person provide significant services and earn substantial income? The services of sole proprietors and people who put substantial time into the business are considered significant.
  • Does the person perform roughly the same level of work as a non-disabled person in a similar business? The SSA may take job duties, hours and special skills into account.
  • Does the value of the individual’s work exceed $1,090 per month? The SSA may consider the wages a hired employee would make while working in the applicant’s position.

Regardless of whether an applicant is self-employed, the SSA may count volunteer work as SGA. As a Chicago disability attorney understands, unpaid positions with significant hours and demands may qualify as SGA. The SSA may also find that an individual would receive earnings above the SGA level if he or she were paid for volunteering.

Special exceptions

In a few cases, a person may earn wages above the SGA threshold and still receive benefits. The SSA allows working individuals to subtract impairment-related work expenses from their counted income. For example, individuals who need to take special transportation to work may deduct the associated costs. Additionally, Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries are permitted to have earnings exceeding the SGA limits during trial work periods.

A trial work period is triggered when a beneficiary’s earnings exceed a set threshold. In 2015, this threshold is $750, as any Chicago disability attorney knows. For self-employed individuals, working over 80 hours in one month sets off a trial work period. Up to nine non-consecutive months can be included in a trial work period. During these months, beneficiaries can engage in work that is considered SGA without losing their benefits.