If someone is disabled and receives a government check, he or she can’t possibly work — right? Working while on disability would seem to be a conflict of interest. But actually, the government provides incentives to encourage those who want to work back into the workforce. Doing so can propel them to financial independence.
Wildomar, California, resident Robbi Salem, 48, worked as a banquet server for more than 30 years. A car accident resulted in ruptured disks in her neck and lower back, weeks of physical therapy and eventually surgery. Her recovery was long and incomplete.
“I am at the point now where I am as well as I am going to get,” she says. “Unfortunately, the physical demands of the only type of work I have ever known are not possible.”
A transition period
Since Salem has a work history and was contributing to Social Security, she was able to collect Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, after being approved through the lengthy application process. When she felt physically ready, she participated in the government-sponsored “Ticket to Work” program where she learned data-entry skills.
“The pay started at minimum wage and amounted to less than I had going out in bills each month,” Salem says.
But Salem didn’t lose her SSDI benefits right away. The work-incentive program enabled her to make ends meet because it allowed her to collect a disability benefit plus the wages she earned over a 45-month transition period. Eventually, she was promoted to a supervisory position and was able to support herself again.
How it works
Individuals with disabilities may qualify for one of two types of Social Security benefits: Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI; or Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Some people qualify for both.The rules are different under each plan, but both have one common denominator: They offer people with disabilities the opportunity to work while collecting benefits.
Naturally, the details of SSDI and SSI are complex — these are government programs, after all. We’ve compiled a few facts to give you a basic understanding of each and how income from working affects benefits.
SSDI for beginners
Recipients of SSDI must have a qualifying disability that has lasted or is expected to last at least a year, or is expected to result in death. They must have worked a specific period of time and paid Social Security taxes.
A trial work period incentive allows workers to test their ability to work while still receiving full Social Security disability benefits for nine months within a 60-month period. They must earn at least $770 per month. All work activity must be reported. Self-employed workers who work more than 80 hours a month or earn more than $770, after expenses, are also eligible.
After the nine-month trial period, those who are still disabled can get a 36-month extension, working while on disability, though earnings during the extension period cannot exceed $1,070 per month. This amount is generally adjusted annually for inflation. Earnings exceeding that amount will result in suspension of the disability benefits. However, if a disability requires one to purchase items or services to facilitate work (transportation, a personal attendant, a wheelchair), those expenses are deducted from the earnings — meaning earnings can be substantially higher than $1,070.
Ticket to work
Once the SSDI benefits stop due to high earnings, they can be immediately reinstated within a five-year period if the work becomes too taxing for a person’s condition. No new application is required and benefits will flow while the medical condition is being evaluated.
The “Ticket to Work” program is also available to SSDI recipients between the ages of 18 and 64 who want to rejoin the workforce.That program provides resources such as vocational rehabilitation, training and job search services.
SSI is paid monthly to qualified low-income individuals who are blind, disabled or age 65 and older. Their payments are not affected by the first $85 of monthly earnings. For earnings above that amount, 50 cents of every dollar earned is deducted from SSI payments. Earnings limits to maintain SSI benefits vary by state.
After years of watching his brother and sisters leave their Gainesville, Georgia, home to go to work, Greg Mikas, 26, wanted to join the fun. Developmentally disabled and unable to read or write, Mikas faced limited job opportunities. He lived with his parents and received SSI, so money was not an issue. But self-esteem was.
“I wanted a paycheck so that I could buy presents for my family with money I get at work, like they do for me,” Mikas says. He started working part time for a landscaper raking leaves, sweeping cut grass off the pavement and other tasks necessary to complete each job.
“I don’t know what my boss would do without me,” he says. His SSI payments have been reduced and his self-esteem is soaring.
Stitching her way in business
Lola McGintee, 58, from Northfield, Minnesota, planned to work past the normal retirement age and into her early 70s. Bladder cancer changed those plans.
“After permanent complications from invasive surgeries and changes in the way my body functions — and often doesn’t function — I could no longer work for an employer. I needed too much flexibility,” she says.
McGintee secured the proper license and turned her love of sewing into a home-based alteration and seamstress business.
“I can do anything from putting a professional hem on a pair of suit slacks to turning yards of cloth into a beautiful dress,” McGintee says. She received SSDI until her self-employment earnings surpassed the amount allowed during the extension, which she had been granted.
“I was financially on my own again in less than two years after I was diagnosed,” she says.