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How does work affect my Title II benefit?

Part 1: Substantial Gainful Activity

To be eligible for disability-related Title II benefits (SSDI, SSCDB, and DWB), you must be unable to work at a certain level due to your disability. This level of work is called Substantial Gainful Activity, or SGA.

A young woman with an amputated arm working at a computer.

Substantial Gainful Activity

Social Security looks at different pieces of information to understand how your disability affects your ability to work. If Social Security finds that your work ability is below the SGA level, you may be eligible for a Title II cash benefit. (You must also meet other eligibility requirements.) Social Security will look at SGA when you apply for benefits and during certain phases when you are working.

Each year, Social Security identifies a dollar amount as a measurement of SGA. In 2024, SGA is measured as $1,550 in countable monthly earnings. If blindness is your disability on record with Social Security, SGA is measured as $2,590. Social Security will compare your monthly countable earnings to the SGA level when making an SGA decision.

Ability to Work
Countable earnings are just one tool Social Security uses when evaluating work. Social Security may decide you can work at SGA, even if you are not currently earning money. For example, if you volunteer a lot of the time, Social Security may decide you can work at SGA.

What are my monthly earnings?

To determine your countable monthly earnings, Social Security starts by looking at all the monthly income you earn from working. Money you receive that does not come from work, such as a cash gift, does not count as earnings and will not affect your Title II benefit.

June is eligible for SSCDB. She receives an inheritance of $50,000 from her grandmother. Because the inheritance has no connection to June’s ability to work, it does not affect her Title II eligibility. June can keep her SSCDB benefit and her inheritance. (Please note, the inheritance could affect a different benefit June receives.)

Monthly earnings may include:

Some income you receive from your job may not count as earnings. For example, sick pay, vacation pay, and holiday pay, if you did not work the holiday, are excluded as earnings for Title II, because those payments were not in exchange for actual work.

Shakira, who receives SSDI, took a two-week vacation from work. She used her vacation time and was paid her regular salary during that time. The vacation pay will not count as earnings toward SGA, because Shakira did not work during that period.

Determining what you earn in a month can be confusing. For example, if you receive a paycheck on August 10th, some of your earnings may be for work you did in July, and some of it may be for work you did in August.

One way to count monthly earnings is to track the hours you work each day on a calendar. You then add the hours you worked in the month and multiply those by your hourly wage.

Bonuses, commissions, and other payments apply toward the months when you do the work, not when you receive the payment. 

We recommend you let Social Security know which months of work the payment is for. If you do not, Social Security may apply the entire bonus to the month you received it.  

Example

Cobalt receives a $600 bonus in November for work he did in July, August, and September. He let Social Security know the bonus was for his work during those three months. Social Security applies the $600 bonus evenly over the months when it was earned: $200 in July, $200 in August, and $200 in September. If Cobalt had not explained to Social Security when he earned the bonus, they might have applied the full $600 bonus to the month when he received it.

Work Incentives

With Title II, earnings alone do not tell the whole story.  Social Security must look at the support you receive to work, your work productivity, accommodations, and other information to fully understand your work ability.

These considerations are examples of “work incentives.” Work incentives are important tools for counting how much income counts toward SGA. 

Work incentives can be backdated. If Social Security decides you worked at SGA in the past, you may be able to let them know about a work incentive they were unaware of and change their decision.

An Impairment Related Work Expense (IRWE) is an expense for an item or service that:

  • you pay for out-of-pocket; 
  • you need the item or service for work; and
  • The item or service is necessary because of your disability.

IRWE examples include:

  • Medical Devices and prosthesis
  • Paying for someone to help you get ready for work or to help you getting settled at home when returning from work 
  • Modifications to your home, like a wheelchair ramp. 

Social Security will subtract these expenses from your earned income when calculating your countable monthly earnings.

A Subsidy refers to on-the-job support and accommodations provided by an employer. If an employer allows you more time to complete tasks, longer or more frequent breaks, or if they have a different expectation of your productivity compared to co-workers doing the same work, Social Security may say your work is “subsidized” by your employer. A Subsidy determines what percentage of your earnings should be counted when looking at SGA.

Special Conditions are on-the-job support or accommodation provided by a party other than your employer. A job coach is a common type of Special Condition. Social Security will multiply the direct support hours by your hourly rate and subtract it from your earned income.

An Unsuccessful Work Attempt is when your work is at or above SGA for a short time (no more than 6 months), but then it drops below SGA due to reasons related to your disability. In these instances, your earnings may not be considered as SGA.

Countable earnings and SGA

Social Security looks at all this information – gross earnings for work performed plus work incentives – and decides how much of your monthly income accurately reflects your ability to work. They then compare these “countable earnings” to the annual SGA figure.

Jeremiah

Jeremiah receives SSDI and earns $2,050 in March. His gross wages are over the SGA figure of $1,550. However, wages alone do not tell the whole story.

Jeremiah also has work incentives. He receives support from a job coach and pays for in-home care to get ready for work. He can take more breaks than his coworkers due to reasons related to his disability. He also missed a day of work due to being ill.

Social Security looks at his gross wages, sick time, and the support he received in March and decides his countable monthly earnings are $1,425. This amount is a more accurate measurement of his work ability compared to his actual gross earnings. Because his countable earnings are below SGA, he is eligible for an SSDI cash benefit.

A blind woman with headphones using the computer.

All-or-nothing benefit

Title II benefits are an all-or-nothing cash benefit. In very basic terms:

Fortunately, Social Security has created work phases when you can try out work without the risk of losing your benefits, even if you work at or above SGA.

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