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Can You Work While on Disability?

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
June 22, 2022  ·  4 min read

Whether you’re applying for disability benefits or already receiving them, working while disabled can be risky. Work too many hours, or make too much money, and you may indicate to the government that you no longer need benefits.

In the eyes of the Social Security Administration (SSA), disability benefits are for those who are too sick or too injured to support themselves through work. If you can work enough to make a significant amount of money each month, you will not be classified (legally) as disabled.

Still, if you provide the right information to the SSA, working part-time may be an option. In this article, we’ll cover the work limitations you should be aware of and the steps you should take to ensure your income doesn’t jeopardize your benefits.

The rules here vary drastically depending on what disability benefits program you qualify (or hope to qualify) for. Let’s break down everything you need to know about working on SSDI or SSI.

Work Limitations on SSDI: Substantial Gainful Activity

To qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the Social Security Administration requires you not to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Here’s what “substantial” and “gainful” mean to the SSA:

  • Substantial means working as much (or nearly as much) as you would if you weren’t disabled.

  • Gainful describes how much money you make, no matter how much time you spend working. It involves making what the SSA considers enough money to support yourself without Social Security benefits.

The SSA needs to know that you can’t work in substantial or gainful ways. If you can, your application will be denied when you apply. 

If your ability to work improves, and the SSA determines you can work substantially or gainfully, the SSA will transition you off of Social Security Disability benefits.

SGA income limits

The SSA calculates your SGA income based on the money you make from working that is taxable. There are different limits on what you can make each month for blind and non-blind people.

In 2024, the maximum you can make while receiving Social Security benefits as a non-blind person is $1,550 per month in gross (pre-tax) income. Blind people can make up to $2,590 monthly in gross income and keep getting their disability payments.

If you are in the process of applying for benefits, it could hurt your eligibility if your monthly earnings are close to the SGA limit.

Gross vs. net income

Something to remember here is the difference between gross income and net income.

  • Gross income is the amount you get paid before taxes get taken off your paycheck.

  • Net income is the amount that actually hits your bank account after taxes. 

The SSA is concerned about the amount you make before taxes, not after.

Can I make passive income without jeopardizing my SSDI benefits? 

Yes, you can make a substantial amount of money without working and still qualify for SSDI.

For example, you can be a landlord (assuming your income is passive, and you’re not also functioning as a super or office manager) or profit off of the stock market. But if your income comes from work and you work a significant number of hours, you may no longer qualify as disabled.

Here are some additional income sources that are not counted as SGA and will not impact your benefits:

  • Your savings

  • Your spouse’s income

  • The home you live in

  • Your car and other possessions (like a wedding band, furniture, clothing, and food)

Income and asset limits on SSI

Because Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is based on financial need rather than work history, it has different rules regarding income and qualifications. (Learn more about the differences between SSDI and SSI.)

To qualify or stay qualified for SSI in 2024, you must have less than $2,000 in resources and make less than $943 per month. If working puts you over these limits, your benefits are at risk.

You may still qualify for Medicaid, depending on the income limits in the state where you live, or if you need Medicaid in order to do your job.

What counts as resources for SSI?

Here are the main things that count as resources if you apply for SSI:

  • Cash

  • Investment accounts, stocks, and bonds

  • Inheritances

  • Land you don’t live on

  • Life insurance with a payout amount over $1,500

  • Anything you could sell for cash and use for essential resources

  • Passive income, including money from family or friends, whether that be cash or help with bill payments, rent, or other expenses

  • A vacation home or second property

  • A second car

  • An RV or boat for recreational use

Things that do not count as income or assets are:

  • The home you live in and the land it rests on

  • Your first vehicle

  • Your household goods and possessions such as a wedding band, furniture, clothing, or food

Think about it this way — do you need something as a part of your daily life, or is it a perk? If it’s a perk, chances are it will be considered an asset and will not be exempt.

It’s good to get familiar with the general rules of your social security program. However, it’s a lot to learn all at one time. 

You don’t need to remember everything from this one article. Your Atticus expert will give you more personalized details so that you’re confident you know how to qualify for and keep your benefits.

What if I’m already getting benefits and start working?

When you start with Social Security, you’ll be assigned an SSA caseworker. This person will help guide you through the ins and outs of how SSA works and help support you.

It’s important to talk to your caseworker about returning to work so that they can provide resources and ensure that you know how to properly report any income so that your benefits keep coming.

Work incentives

One of the resources that your caseworker will tell you about when the time comes is called the Ticket to Work program. The Ticket program provides employment support like career counseling, work training, and job placement. 

Talk to your caseworker about Ticket to Work if you’re thinking about returning to work but aren’t sure where to start looking or what you might be great at now.

Your caseworker can also help you prepare a Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS). A PASS is a written document that allows you to deduct certain work expenses when the SSA calculates your income.

Trial work period

When you test the waters to see if you can either return to work at your old job or try something new, it’s called a trial work period (TWP). Here are a few important things to consider about a TWP:

  • A TWP is only an option for SSDI recipients, not SSI recipients.

  • If you make over $1,110 in one month, it counts as a month of work under your TWP. If you’re self-employed, your TWP starts when you make more than $1,110 (after business expenses) or work more than 80 hours.

  • Your SSDI benefits will not change until you complete nine months of work activity over a 60-month period.

  • In the first 36 months after your TWP ends, you can still receive benefits any month that your earnings are less than $1,550 (or $2,590 if you are blind). This is known as the Extended Period of Eligibility. If you have work-related expenses because of your disability, the SSA may deduct these when they determine your earnings.

  • If you have to stop working because of your condition, you have five years to ask the SSA to restart your benefits. (If you pass the five-year mark, you’ll need to reapply for benefits.)

  • You can still get Medicare Part A coverage for 93 months after your TWP ends.

Student Earned-Income Exclusion (SEIE)

If you’re on SSI and go to school or attend a regular training program, the SSA won’t count up to  $2,290 of your monthly income (with a maximum of $9,230 for 2024) when calculating your SSI benefits. The SEIE also applies to people under the age of 22.

It might sound like there are a lot of rules and details to do with working when you’re on Social Security Disability. In some ways, there are, but once you get to know the rules for the program you’re in, whether SSDI or SSI, it will seem much more straightforward.

Learning from this article is a great start. When you contact Atticus, we’ll give you more information and help you understand what you can and can’t do while on disability. 

This way, you’ll be able to focus on your health and return to work in a job that can support your life and well-being.

Ready to get benefits today?

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Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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