The general rule for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) recipients is that if you work over a certain amount per month (above the SGA limit), you will be ineligible for SSDI. The general rule for SSI recipients is that any income you make will reduce the amount of your monthly benefit, possibly to zero. However, Social Security has many work incentive rules and programs that it calls “employment supports” that allow people to try to re-enter the workforce without losing their disability benefits. In certain circumstances, Social Security will disregard some earned income and allow you to collect your regular benefits, continue medical coverage, and pay for job training while you try out working. Social Security has a manual called the “Red Book” that describes all of its employment supports.
Trial Work Period for SSDI
The main employment support for SSDI recipients is called the trial work period. Social Security allows you to work for nine months in any rolling 60-month period and keep your full SSDI monthly benefit, regardless of how much income your earns. For a month to count as one of the nine trial months, you must have gross earnings of more than $750 per month.
You must be disabled for at least one year before starting a trial work period; the trial work period is available after you've been approved for SSDI and only twelve months after your established disability onset date.
Also, Social Security can stop your SSDI benefits during the trial work period if there is medical evidence that your disability has improved.
After you complete your trial work period, Social Security allows you to continue to receive SSDI for any month in the next 36 months in which you do not earn the SGA amount. For this “extended period of eligibility,” to see whether you are making over the SGA amount, Social Security looks at your countable gross income and reduces your gross income by any impairment-related work expense.
Adjustments to Countable Gross Income
Another type of employment support (work incentive) from Social Security comes in the form of adjustments to gross income. When you get SSI, Social Security looks at your countable gross income to determine your benefit amount; the same is true if you receive SSDI and are doing trial work.
However, Social Security has several rules about how it counts gross income that allow you to reduce your countable gross income.
Impairment-Related Work Expenses
Impairment-related work expenses (IRWE) are services or equipment that you pay for and that you need to be able to work despite your physical or mental impairment. IRWE can be almost anything that helps you work, like the cost of modifications to your car, the cost of adding ramps to your home, the cost of a personal attendant to help you get ready for work, the costs of medical treatment, or the cost of a service dog if it helps you work.
Social Security will subtract the cost of your IRWE from your gross monthly income to come up with an adjusted value for your work. You must be solely responsible for the IRWE before Social Security will use it to reduce your countable gross income; if you are reimbursed for the expense, Social Security will not use it.
Subsidies and Special Conditions
Social Security tries to determine the real value of the work you do, and it considers whether your employer is paying you more than the value of your work and whether anyone is helping you perform the work. Social Security calls these “subsidies and special conditions.” An example of a subsidy is when a disability recipient produces less or works fewer hours than others but still gets paid the same as others. An example of a special condition is when a disability recipient's employer provides closer supervision than other employees receive.
In both examples, Social Security would look beyond the amount on your paycheck and reduce your gross monthly income to account for the actual value of the work being done.
Earned Income Exclusions (SSI only)
For SSI recipients only, Social Security excludes the first $65 of earnings in a month. That is in addition to the $20 general exclusion that applies to unearned income first. If you have no unearned income, Social Security will apply the $20 general exclusion to your earned income, excluding a total of $85 per month in wages. Then Social Security counts only 50% of the remaining earned income each month.
Students under the age of 22 who are regularly attending school can use a more generous income exclusion: in 2013, students can exclude up to $1,730 per month in earned income, up to a yearly limit of $6,960.
The Ticket to Work Program
The Ticket to Work Program is a work incentive program for adults who receive SSI or SSDI. Social Security contracts with agencies that it calls employment networks (ENs) and state vocational rehabilitation agencies (VRs) to provide vocational screening, counseling, and training to disability recipients. Social Security maintains a list of ENs and Vrs that participate in the Ticket to Work program. You can find agencies in your area by calling Social Security Ticket Call Center, at 866-968-7842.
Once you have met with one or more Ticket to Work agencies, you may decide to use one to help you achieve your employment goal. Before the agency will provide any services to you, Social Security requires the agency to create a written plan describing your employment goals and what the agency will do to help you achieve those goals. You must sign the plan before Social Security will consider you to be in the Ticket to Work program. The agency provides all of the employment services at no charge to you. Social Security pays the agency.
Social Security will not conduct any medical reviews to see if you are still disabled while you are participating in the Ticket to Work program and following your plan.
If you are not satisfied with your Ticket to Work agency, you can stop using it or switch to another, but you must enter into another written plan with the new agency and notify Social Security that you have switched.
Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) Program for SSI
If you receive SSI or SSDI, you might be allowed to set aside some income or resources to help you achieve an employment goal, as long as it is part of a plan that Social Security has approved. You can save money for almost anything that will help you achieve your goal of returning to work, like transportation and childcare expenses, tuition or training costs, employment services, and supplies. Your plan can be to start a business, but you will need to submit a business plan and more documentation to show Social Security that your plan is likely to help you support yourself.
The employment plan is called a PASS (Plan to Achieve Self Support). To apply for a PASS, fill out SSA Form 545-BK. Social Security is more likely to approve your PASS if you have gotten help from a vocational rehabilitation counselor or similar professional to develop your employment plan. Social Security can help you complete the application or can refer you to agencies in your area that will help you.
If Social Security approves your application for a PASS, then the agency will not count income or resources you set aside according to your plan in determining your SSI eligibility.
If Social Security denies your application for a PASS, you have the right to appeal. File a Request for Reconsideration within 60 days.