The process of getting Social Security disability benefits is very slow. It often takes two to three years before disability benefits are awarded. While the appeal is under review, most of my clients are experiencing a financial crisis. It is a major struggle to pay for life necessities such as food, rent, electricity, heat, doctor bills and medications. I am often asked – can I work while I am waiting for a decision?

This question is understandable, and very reasonable. People need some means to survive while their case is slowly winding its way through the appeal process. I respond to this question as follows:

First, if you work and average earning more than $1,040 per month (in 2013), you are not disabled according to Social Security regulations. If a client can maintain that level of earnings, I advise them to work and not pursue Social Security disability benefits at this time.

Second, if you work and average earning less than $1,040 per month (in 2013), that work may or may not hurt your disability case. Working will certainly complicate your case. Here are some factors to consider to help you decide what is best for you to do.

  • Consider the big picture. You are asking the Federal Government to pay you a monthly check because you are unable to work due to medical impairments. If you are actually working at the same time you are telling SSA that you cannot work, in my opinion it hurts your case.
  • The closer your monthly earnings approach $1,040/m, the more the work hurts your case. The lower your monthly earnings are, the less the work hurts your case. My experience has been that earning less than $400/m does not hurt the case.
  • If you go back to work but have to stop working within three months due to medical problems, that should be considered an unsuccessful work attempt and should not hurt the case. My experience has been that unsuccessful work attempts do not hurt the case.
  • The number of hours worked per day and the physical demands of the work are very important. SSA looks at all of your activities as it evaluates your ability to work. If you allege you are disabled because you cannot lift more than 10 pounds due to a bad back, but you work 10 hours a week lifting 50 pounds regularly, that part time work will hurt your case even if you earn way less than $1,040/m.
  • SSA does not consider economic conditions. The fact that no jobs are available where you live due to a bad economy is not a basis for getting Social Security disability benefits. When one of my clients works part time, I worry that a disability judge will conclude that a bad economy, not medical problems, is keeping my client from working full time.

In summary, whether to work while you are pursuing disability is a very difficult personal decision. In my opinion, most work activity performed after you apply for Social Security disability benefits hurts your case.