The following is for informational purposes only. Every case is unique, and the following information does not constitute legal advice.  No attorney-client privilege is implied.  If you have specific questions or concerns, it is best to seek individual legal counsel.

This question gets asked a lot and incorrect advice is freely given with many thinking it is as simple as “you can work part-time.”  Unfortunately, this misinformation circulates online and is even sometimes provided by the clerks at your local social security office. 

However, “working part-time” – at least interpreted as less than 20 hours per week – is wrong.   Sometimes people are told that if they earn less than SGA (substantial gainful activity) that they will be okay too.  This is also incorrect.

Thinking you are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week, or that as long as you earn less than SGA you are okay, can cost you your benefits.  This error can even cause you to end up owing the Social Security Administration tens of thousands of dollars in overpayments.  I have seen it happen.

Some caveats for the following information:

(1) The article assumes you are already receiving benefits and not waiting for a hearing.

(2) This article only addresses rules for those receiving SSDI benefits.  The rules are different for SSI.

Remember, you are required by law to report any and all earnings to the Social Security Administration.

The actual rules about working while on disability

Returning to work will trigger the beginning of a trial work period (TWP).  During this period (which does not have an end), if a worker earns more than $1,050 in a month, it counts as a successful “service month.”  This amount is adjusted annually.  The $1,050 is the monthly cap for 2023.  Notice that this is quite a bit less than SGA, which for 2023 is $1,470 per month. Like the TWP amount, SGA goes up annually as well.  Charts with the numbers for other years can be found at these links:

TWP: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/twp.html

SGA: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/sga.html

Again, earnings of more than $1,050 in 2023 will count as a successful “service month” for the Trial Work Period.  You are allowed to have 9 months of earnings at, or higher, than this in a rolling 60-month period (5 years).  The months do not have to be consecutive.  What does this mean?  If you have two months in 2023 in which you earn more than $1,050, and then three months in 2024, and then 4 months in 2025 – you will have exhausted your 9 months. These could be months in which your earnings bumped up due to a bonus, a raise, or working some extra shifts.  

What happens when you exhaust the 9 months?

After those 9 months, you transition into an “extended period of eligibility” (EPE) which lasts 36 months.  Any single month after that in which you earn more than SGA (which for 2023 is $1,470) your benefits will be suspended.  SSA will pay your benefits for that month and the two months after that.  This is called your grace period. After that, if you are still engaging in earnings above SGA, your benefits will be stopped.  However, if your earnings fall below SGA and you are still within the 36-month period, Social Security can restart your benefits without a new application.

It is very easy to inadvertently lose your benefits

Here is a common example.  Bob is operating under the mistaken belief that he can work, as long as it is less than 20 hours per week.  He is making $15/hour which is equivalent to $1300/month.  In the first 9 months, he will have burned through his TWP service months.  It would only take one small raise or bonus to bump him over SGA during the next 36 months.  The problem is that SSA is not tracking this every month.  Unknown to him, he lost his benefits years ago, but kept on working until SSA reviewed his file.  

When SSA reviewed his file, they did these calculations, realized he already went through his TWP and extended period of eligibility and that his benefits should have ended three years prior. He has lost his SSDI and Medicare, and now owes 3 years of SSDI payments back to SSA.  This can be tens of thousands of dollars.

Well, I’ll just keep my earnings low and I won’t have to worry about it

Let’s say that Bob read this article and decides instead he’ll only work 10 hours per week and very carefully monitor his earnings, so they stay low.  While this would not trigger a TWP/EPE, at some point SSA may do a Continuing Disability Review (CDR).  CDRs are when SSA reviews a file to ensure that a claimant continues to meet the definition of “disabled” under SSA regulations.  If Bob is working a regular shift, being able to successfully meet his work burdens, then it begs the question, why can he not work more hours?  Working, even below the TWP/EPE thresholds, can be risky. 

For more information about TWP and EPE: https://choosework.ssa.gov/blog/2021-03-11-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-trial-work-period-twp

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