Once you have successfully navigated the booby-trap laden path to be approved for disability benefit programs (Supplemental Security Income, SSI, or Social Security Disability Income, SSDI), the last thing you want to do is endanger your benefits in any way. At the same time, you may not want to spend the rest of your life knitting sweaters or tinkering around the house. You have skills that are valued in the workforce, and you want to use them, if only in a limited capacity. Is that even possible?
Fortunately, the answer is yes – if you are willing to follow strict guidelines and keep an eye on your monthly earnings. The Social Security Administration has avenues in place that allow you to test whether you can return to the workforce full-time, or even to earn a limited income while you retain your disability benefits. The Trial Work Period (TWP), Extended Period of Eligibility, Ticket to Work, Plan to Achieve Self Sufficiency (PASS) and Expedited Reinstatement programs can help you either transition back to full-time work or supplement your SSI or SSDI income.
Working While Disabled – SSI and SSDI
SSDI benefits are provided to individuals who have paid into the Social Security and Medicare system, but who have been forced to cease working due to a documented physical or mental disability. In addition to SSDI benefits, recipients also receive health care benefits under the Medicare program. Ordinarily, SSDI recipients who earn more than the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) amount of $1,130 per month ($1,820 per month for blind SSDI recipients) are subject to lose their benefits. These amounts are subject to periodic increases through the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) provision.
SSI benefits are provided to disabled individuals with little or no income from work. In addition to SSI benefits, recipients are also eligible to receive health care benefits under the Medicaid program. For 2016, the Federal Benefit Rate (FBR) which represents the maximum monthly income allowed for SSI recipients is $733 for single individuals and $1,100 for married couples. These amounts may also increase under the COLA provision.
As an incentive to encourage SSI recipients to work if they are able, SSA discounts half of earned income when determining eligibility. The first $85 of income, earned or unearned, is not subject to offsets at all. Above this level, SSI benefits are decreased by $1 for every $2 of gross earned income, with several exceptions. For instance, costs for adaptive devices, Para-transit services, automotive adaptive devices or other expenses can be subtracted from your income.
Allowances for blind SSI recipients are much broader than for other SSI recipients, including deductions for guide dogs and all meals consumed during working hours. Students receiving SSI benefits also receive special consideration. Students may exclude up to $1,700 each month or $6,840 each year in earned income from consideration for eligibility for SSI benefits.
Trial Work Period and Extended Period of Eligibility
Under the TWP, SSDI recipients are allowed to receive full benefits for nine months, regardless of how much they earn through work. The SSA counts the first nine months when recipients make more than the amount set ($810 per month for 2016) as the TWP. The nine months need not be consecutive, so if you work full-time for two months but find that you really cannot handle the responsibilities, you resume collecting SSDI benefits and try again at a later date and have seven months remaining for your TWP. After your TWP ends, SSA provides a three-month grace period during which you can continue to receive benefits even if you exceed SGA limits. For the 33 months following your grace period, your benefits will be cut for any month that you exceed SGA limits, but will be automatically restored for every month that your earnings fall below SGA limits, without the need to reapply for benefits.
Plan to Achieve Self Sufficiency and Ticket to Work
The PASS program allows SSI recipients to set aside income from non-SSI sources that is not counted in determining new or continued eligibility to obtain equipment such as specially adapted vehicles or receive the training needed to achieve financial self-sufficiency or reduce reliance on SSI benefits. The SSA imposes no limits on the amount of funds that you may set aside through the PASS program. The Ticket to Work program allows SSI recipients who intend to seek full-time work to receive training, rehabilitation, and counseling from designated “employment networks.” If you only plan to return to work part-time, you may also receive these services without signing up for the Ticket to Work program.
OK, you goofed. Your income exceeded the limits set for SSDI for a single month after completing the TWP and Extended Eligibility periods. Or you were an SSI or SSDI recipient who returned to full-time work for a fairly extended period but have subsequently become unable to maintain the schedule. The SSA allows you to apply for renewed SSI or SSDI benefits for up to five years under the Expedited Reinstatement program, during which you can receive benefits for up to six months while your application is being processed. You will not be required to repay these benefits, even if your application is denied. But under the Expedited Reinstatement program, the odds for approval are in your favor, because SSA must prove that your condition has substantially improved since you were initially approved for benefits. This is in contrast to the requirements for new applicants, who must provide affirmative evidence of disability before SSA will approve SSI or SSDI benefits.
Get to Work!
Of course, if your disability is debilitating, you are entitled to any and all benefits which will make your daily existence easier to bear. But especially if you are younger than retirement age, the prospect of remaining idle for decades just to ensure the continuation of SSI or SSDI benefits can be depressing. Thanks to SSI’s work incentive programs, you may be able to put your abilities to productive use, with no risk to the benefits to which you are rightfully entitled. Are you considering returning to work? Consult with an attorney to determine what options may be available to you.
Audrey Henderson is a Chicagoland-based writer and researcher. She holds advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. Her writing specialties are sustainable development in the built environment, policy related to arts and popular culture, socially and ecologically responsible travel, civic tech and personal finance.