Social Security Disability Beneficiaries Can Choose to Work—Learn How

By Alice L. Bowen

About the Author

Alice has more than 30 years of regulatory compliance, Social Security disability law, administration and leadership experience. She was previously employed at Vanderbilt University in research compliance working alongside top administrative leadership for the Department of Research. She worked with interdisciplinary teams at Vanderbilt University in resolving complex regulatory issues focused on the rights of research participants while developing innovative and strategic research practices.   She has worked in the area of disability law for 21 years, including representing clients with claims for disability, disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income.  In that capacity, she is noted for winning the vast majority of claims for beneficiaries. Currently, she is program director for Benefits to Work. She supervises a staff of Community Work Incentive Coordinators and Benefits Analysts.  Advocating for and working to empower individuals with disabilities is her passion! She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice and a Juris Doctorate from Temple University – Beasley School of Law.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

“How much can I make and still keep my benefits?”

This is the No. 1 question posed by individuals seeking our help here at the Benefits to Work Program of the Tennessee Disability Coalition.  I often feel a sense of trepidation when this is the only question asked. You see, in another life, I represented beneficiaries with claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). These benefits include financial assistance and access to Medicare and/or Medicaid. The path to the awarding of these benefits can be daunting and span over many years.  So obviously, we (meaning, we legal folks) advised against any work activities because the benefits individuals fought so diligently to receive could have easily been lost. The Social Security work incentives including the Ticket to Work program did not exist in those days. Therefore, benefits were readily terminated whenever a person began working.  The irony is, some 20 or so years later, I am director for a program called, “Benefits to Work.” Still today, there are attorneys and others who will advise against working, and people who fear a path to economic independence.

Let’s talk for a moment about how the law came into existence.  In December 1999, the Social Security Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act was signed by President Bill Clinton.  It provided incentive payments to agencies and programs to help with the successful return to work for Social Security disability beneficiaries.  The Act created a “Ticket” program that provides beneficiaries who want to work with free support services provided by programs like Vocational Rehabilitation, and Benefits Planning, Assistance and Outreach, the precursor to the current Work Incentives Planning and Assistance, or WIPA, program.  The Act put in place a number of safeguards for beneficiaries called “work incentives,” as a safety net to protect the financial benefits and health insurance while beneficiaries who choose to, could pursue work goals with less apprehension about losing benefits.

Benefits to Work is a collaboration of the Tennessee Disability Coalition and Empower Tennessee to manage two WIPA programs in the state of Tennessee.  WIPA programs are established to do exactly what we could not envision those many years ago, which is to help individuals receiving Social Security disability benefits transition from dependence on public assistance to paid employment and economic independence.  So, why then is it difficult to convince people of the positive returns on working?  There are a number of reasons, but most often a lack of information and fear of the unknown prevents individuals and families from ever pursuing the path of economic self-reliance.

How do we help?

Benefits to Work staff includes Benefits Analysts who give presentations across the state to inform attendees about the range of services offered by Benefits to Work and give a general overview of the work incentives.  Attending a presentation is often the first phase of Benefits to Work services.  A list of the upcoming presentations can be found at this link:    https://www.tndisability.org/upcoming-presentations

Benefits to Work is also staffed by Community Work Incentive Coordinators, also known as CWICs, who share with individuals and families resources to help with career goals ultimately leading to work options. These are highly trained professionals who provide in-depth guidance about working, about earning more money while working, and with understanding how working may affect benefits.  CWICs help individualsunderstand how to properly use the work incentives including Ticket to Work.  The work incentives are complex. This is a good reason for engaging the expertise of a CWIC.   CWICs provide intensive and comprehensive counseling focused on the whole person. We consider the specific circumstances of each individual seeking our help incorporating all benefits received by all family members, e.g.  SSDI, SSI, TennCare, Medicare, SNAP, which is also known as food stamps, subsidized housing, Workers’ Compensation, Families First, which was formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, veterans benefits and more. Benefits to Work clients often consult CWICs when making decisions about career goals including vocational training, postsecondary and higher educational endeavors, when offered a job, while working and with any changes occurring in circumstances over a span of many years.  Most importantly, the services are absolutely FREE!

To be eligible for services from Benefits to Work, you must be:

  • Between the ages of 14 and retirement;
  • Working, have a job offer or actively pursuing employment; and
  • An individual who is already receiving Social Security disability benefits, either SSI or SSDI

To summarize, Benefits to Work can help you:

  • Dispel the fear of the unknowns
  • Make more informed choices
  • Understand the rules of the work incentives and how they apply to you
  • Decide whether the Ticket to Work program is right for you
  • Understand the potential benefits of employment as a person who receives disability benefits
  • Analyze how work earnings may impact your Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, health care, and other public benefits

What might the services offered by Benefits to Work look like in the life of an individual? Let’s take a look at Mike.  Keep in mind; it is not my intention that you completely understand the complexities of the work incentives with this story, just how application of them impacted Mike’s life.  The rest I will leave to the experts, the Benefits to Work Benefits Analysts and CWICs.

Phase One – Referral/Presentation

Mike was referred to the Benefits to Work Program by an employee of the local Social Security Administration Field Office.   He attended a presentation conducted by a Benefits Analyst at the Vocational Rehabilitation office.  Mike had a job offer for employment for 40 hours a week at $14 per hour.  He wanted to accept the offer, but he had some reservations about how working might affect his benefits.  He was receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), TennCare, Medicare, and SNAP.  The Benefits Analyst immediately referred Mike to a CWIC due to the urgency of his circumstances.

Phase Two – Intensive and Comprehensive Counseling

The CWIC obtained a Benefits Planning Query.  A Benefits Planning Query is a record query that contains information about the status of your disability benefits, work history, current work status, health insurance, scheduled medical reviews, and representative payee data.   With this tool, CWICs can also verify which of the work incentives have already been used and provide more insight about the potential impact on benefits if Mike decides to accept the job. The CWIC reviewed the contents of the query with Mike to correct any errors in the information documented by the Social Security Administration.

The CWIC drafted a Benefits Summary and Analysis, which is a written report of the individual’s circumstances, how to properly apply the work incentives and a roadmap of what to expect might occur when going to work.  The Benefits Summary and Analysis provided a breakdown of the impact of Mike’s monthly wages on both his SSI and SSDI.  Also, the CWIC completed an SSI calculation sheet displaying actual figures specifically showing how his employment income might impact SSI cash payments.  She scheduled a meeting to discuss contents of the Benefits Summary and Analysis with Mike to answer any of his questions. She encouraged him, with this information, to consider accepting the job.

Mike took the job. He later remembered the roadmap and knew he needed to report his earnings.  He took the Benefits Summary and Analysis from the CWIC along with his pay stubs to the local Social Security office and gave it to a claims representative. Mike, who has an eighth-grade education, remembered to request a receipt for the information he turned in, as instructed by the CWIC. The following week Mike received a Work Activity Report to be completed. He contacted the CWIC. He described his written communication skills as very poor and again requested the CWIC’s assistance. The CWIC helped him complete the form.

Utilizing the Work Incentives

Disability benefits will not be immediately cut off when an individual who is receiving SSDI reports work activity to Social Security. SSDI recipients are given a nine-month Trial Work Period during which they can test their ability to work and benefits will continue.  Months with earnings of more than $850.00 are counted as trial work months. At the conclusion of the Trial Work Period, Social Security will review your circumstances to see if there has been medical improvement or if substantial gainful activity can be performed.   Substantial gainful activity is defined by Social Security by the level of work activity and earnings.  Social Security will decide that work is substantial when the earnings level is $1,180.00 a month for people who are disabled and $1,970.00 a month for people who are blind. All dollar amounts are subject to change each year.  During the three years following the Trial Work Period, a beneficiary can continue to receive a disability check for any month that earnings are below substantial gainful activity, which is another work incentive called Extended Period of Eligibility. Mike utilized all of these work incentives with the help and guidance of his CWIC.

Mike’s employer provided support during the workday to assist Mike in performing his job, e.g. extra supervision, flexible start and end times.  The CWIC assisted Mike with completing a “subsidy form.”  When making a Substantial Gainful Activity determination, the Social Security Administration uses only earnings that represent the real value of the work performed.  When someone’s earnings are subsidized, the person is receiving more pay than the actual value of the work performed.  Mike was approved by Social Security for a 50% subsidy, which reduced the countable earnings SSA considered by 50%.  This allowed his earnings to remain under the Substantial Gainful Activity level, and he continued to receive his benefits.  Brief illustration below:

Actual monthly earnings – $2,000.00

Subsidy 50% – $1,000.00 reduction in earnings

The value of Mike’s work is $1,000.00

Since this amount is less than the SGA earnings level of $1,180.00, Mike’s SSDI check will continue.

Clear as mud?

Mike’s earnings subsequently increased. He has worked himself off of SSI and SNAP/food stamps, but he continues to receive his SSDI cash payment due to his subsidy. His TennCare has continued under the Continuation of Medicaid Eligibility 1619b work incentive.  Learn more about this work incentive here:  https://www.ssa.gov/disabilityresearch/wi/1619b.htm. Mike’s Medicare has continued under the extended period of Medicare coverage work incentive. If he continues to be disabled, Medicare coverage can continue for at least 93 months (that’s 7.7 years) after the Trial Work Period.

Sometimes an overpayment occurs or circumstances change

Mike contacted the CWIC when he received notification of an overpayment.  He was very upset since he thought he had followed all the rules by reporting his earnings every month and receiving a receipt each time. The CWIC met with Mike and assisted him with completing a Request for Waiver of Overpayment Recovery.  The Social Security Administration waived the overpayment as it had not occurred due to anything Mike had done.

The CWIC continues to assist Mike whenever necessary.  His monthly income went from $770 to $2,936 per month.  Although, it can be challenging to be convinced of this fact, the bottom line is that working is almost always advantageous for an individual.  The key is to get the facts in the beginning stages of the employment process.  Learn more information here:  https://www.tndisability.org/benefits-work. 

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Alice knows from years of experience that working can be beneficial for people with disabilities, and she and her colleagues at the Benefits to Work program strive to help ensure that people who do want to work and are able to work can keep their disability benefits and earn real wages. But I would love to hear from you about your experiences with working and keeping your SSI/SSDI and TennCare/Medicare or if you were able to move off disability benefits entirely. I would like to know if you used the assistance of the Benefits to Work program or not.

We know personal stories are powerful. I’d like to hear yours. Email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org, and if you’re willing, I can share your story to encourage others.