Historic. Unprecedented. These are words that those who track the U.S. unemployment rate are using to describe the current labor market, which is shaking off the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of January 2023, the unemployment rate was 3.4%, the lowest it has been in more than 50 years.
The unusually tight labor market has, in particular, benefited one group of Americans who are all too often marginalized in the workplace—people with disabilities.
In fact, individuals with disabilities between the ages of 25 to 54 were more likely to be employed in 2022 than before the pandemic hit, according to a report issued last fall by the think tank Economic Innovation Group.
Employment growth for those with impairments is even outpacing the gains of people without disabilities. Furthermore, Americans with disabilities are not only receiving more job offers, but better jobs, higher pay, and more flexibility and accommodations for their disabilities that were denied previously.
Advocates for people with disabilities say a major driver of employment opportunities for this group is the massive expansion of remote work options over the past three years.
Remote work offers employees the chance to work in their own homes, which means they have greater flexibility, no need to overcome the difficulties of commuting and privacy that may not be available in a workplace.
While this is welcome news for people who live with health restrictions, there are cautions you need to be aware of if you are receiving Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits and are considering going back to work.
If you have been through the soul-crushing approval process to win Social Security Disability benefits, it is understandable that you may be reluctant to lose those benefits.
If you go back to work and earn too much, you will no longer receive Social Security Disability benefits. You may even be required to pay back benefits you have already received. How much you can earn while on disability is different for individuals currently getting SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits and those getting SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits.
Generally speaking, SSDI recipients cannot be engaged in what is considered “substantial gainful activity” (SGA) and continue to receive disability benefits.
In 2023, engaging in SGA means you’re working and making more than $1,470 per month or $2,460 if you’re blind (this SGA amount is adjusted annually). For SSI, even if a recipient is earning under the “SGA” amount, their benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 they earn, after the first $65.
A notable exemption from the limits on earning is wages from “accommodated work,” which is when an employer creates opportunities for a worker with special needs that typically do not exist for the other employees of that company.
With the national unemployment rate at record low levels and the competition for workers at an all-time high, accommodated work is becoming more common. Under Social Security rules, income from accommodated work is not counted as part of the calculations for earned income.
“Ticket to Work” is an employment program designed to reduce or end the reliance on benefit payments for people with disabilities.
Ticket to Work offers job referrals, career counseling, training, and other services to help people with disabilities re-enter the workforce. Participation is voluntary and free.
Social Security Administration (SSA) rules allow a trial work period (TWP), although it can get complicated. A trial work period is only available to SSDI recipients, not SSI recipients.
“During a trial work period,” SSA says on its website, “a beneficiary receiving Social Security Disability benefits may test his or her ability to work and still be considered disabled [and continue to collect disability payments]. We do not consider services performed during the trial work period as showing that the disability has ended until services have been performed in at least 9 months (not necessarily consecutive) in a rolling 60-month period.”
In most cases, if you return to work but are later unable to continue working due to the same disability, you won’t need to re-qualify for disability benefits. You will simply be placed back on whatever disability programs you previously qualified for.
After you’ve completed your nine months of the TWP, you will begin a 36-month Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE). During this time, if you continue to work, your SSDI benefits may stop, but you may continue to receive Medicare.
In most cases, if during this 36-month period, you find you are unable to continue working due to the same disability, you won’t need to re-qualify for disability benefits. You can often be placed back on SSDI.
The most important thing to do if you are a Social Security Disability beneficiary receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, or both, and you are working—even if it is just part time—is to report your gross wages to the Social Security Administration on a monthly basis.
The SSA says: “You should consistently report wages during the first six days of the month to help prevent overpayments and underpayments.”
If you return to work without informing the SSA and continue to draw Social Security Disability benefits, you can face stiff financial fines and even prison time if you are found guilty of fraud. To make it easier, the SSA allows recipients to report wages online.
The disability lawyers at Nash Disability Law often have clients ask if Social Security considers seasonal work or work in the “gig economy” (like driving for Uber or Lyft) as engaging in gainful activity. And the answer is: absolutely yes.
It is encouraging to see that more people with impairments are finding jobs.
But if you are receiving Social Security Disability benefits, bear in mind that the government is entitled to know if you return to work. So be honest and keep good records, or you could get in a real jam.
Social Security has complex rules about how work attempts can affect a claim. This is why it’s important not to make presumptions that work will or will not affect your case.
Instead, contact the skilled Chicago disability attorneys at Nash Disability Law for advice.