I was fortunate enough to never need to ask that question. When I applied, I was physically unable to work due to symptoms and had lost two jobs in the previous three months.
My parents helped me through the wait financially, and I focused on my treatments and healing process. I did not even think about working until several months after I was awarded my disability claim. I know that I was incredibly lucky that my family was able to help me through it, and I know many people are not that lucky.
I understand that the decision of whether or not to work can have huge consequences in terms of survival – having food and shelter, and I do not expect you to take this decision lightly.
I have talked to several people who are applying now, and they have found themselves waiting closer to a year or so to get their initial response, and then have had to appeal multiple times.
It’s less common now to be awarded disability on the first application, and now when people are awarded disability, it takes six months after the decision for them to receive their first check. During the time between application and receipt of the first check(which can be years) working is a very risky proposition.
Can you work while applying for disability? Yes.
Should you work while applying for disability? Probably not – it may endanger your benefits.
Here are my thoughts on the safest options if you feel it is necessary, and how best to prepare for your claim. I would approach working while applying with extreme caution if you are applying for Social Security Disability Insurance(SSDI).
If you are not eligible for SSDI, your primary option is Supplemental Security Income(SSI), which is need-based.
Working and being eligible for SSI is challenging, given the level of need you need to show. However, your earning limits are technically the same as SSDI.
If I am working and applying for SSDI, what do I need to do?
You do not want to ‘tough it out’ in a full-time job. If you can physically do the work while waiting for disability, they will use that as a reason to dismiss your claim, no matter how miserable you are in the process.
If, however, you significantly cut your hours and your employer makes significant accommodations for you, you are in a better position to argue that you are indeed disabled, and need to be on SSDI. You do need to document all of this very carefully though, and you also need to weigh the benefits of continuing to receive a paycheck against the likelihood that SSDI will use that as an argument that you aren’t ‘disabled enough’.
This means that if you do continue to work, or seek other employment after your application and before your decision, you need to keep very good records.
You need to document the type of work you do, the nature of accommodations you receive(in most cases reduced hours plus anything else), and your increased expenses or changes made to accommodate your condition.
Examples of these changes include taking an Uber instead of driving, modifications to your vehicle, going in later so you have more time to get ready in the morning, or to avoid the rush hour commute, using a standing desk, or getting more frequent or longer breaks.
Basically, anything that you do now that you didn’t need to do before your condition should be mentioned. Have your employer track this information and keep an official record, so you can share this information with social security when they ask.
Long Term Disability
Some employers have Long Term Disability(LTD) programs that they run – and if you are in an uncertain space healthwise, you definitely should look into that.
For the most part, LTD programs will cover you for years, though often they will request that you apply for SSDI once you’ve been unable to work past a certain point in time.
The major positive for this is that your LTD coverage often continues through the whole application process and will often pay any difference that may exist between whatever their coverage is and your award from SSDI when you do receive it.
The most important thing is that during all of this, you are seeing the proper doctors and getting the best possible treatment for your condition.
What do you need to prove your claim?
You need to prove that your condition has a significant and negative effect on your quality of life and that you are doing what you can to correct it. You need to prove that either you are unable to work(easier), or have such a limited ability to work that you can’t even make SGA.
If you are working, you also will want to keep a journal of your symptoms(pain journal or similar), to record how you feel before, during, and after work, and how affected you are.
Most likely if you have a supervisor or job that is willing and able to make your accommodations, you can also continue to work for them after you get your disability benefits(provided it always stays below SGA).
It is a very risky path to take, because it feels like they are looking for any excuse to deny you, but if you are detailed and thorough in your documentation, the accommodations are significant, and your doctors agree that you can handle your workload and no more than that, you might have a shot.
The additional challenge, of course, is about the type of condition you are dealing with. If you have a physical condition, like broken bones or stroke – something that is easy to point out on a scan or through testing, you likely can explain and justify your return to work after a convalescent period.
You can often get medical leave for an extended period of time(sometimes paid, sometimes unpaid) for healing and treatment. My sister was able to get medical leave after she injured her arm.
They paid her for the vacation time she earned during her weeks of absence, then charged her for her insurance coverage. She got checks for only a few dollars a month but didn’t need to pay for her insurance, so was utterly fine with it.
When my partner Al broke his hip, he and I both hoped that he could recover enough to return to his job by their deadline(he broke his hip on his last day of training, so he needed to redo the training process, meaning he could only go back if they were offering the training program).
When we realized he couldn’t, they let him go, but recorded that the only reason for his termination was that he could not return to work after his injury – which means that if he were to apply to work for that company again, he would have a very good chance of being hired by them. He would still need to go through the application process, of course, but he would have a better chance of being hired than people with no relationship to the company and a much better chance than people who had been fired by the company.
If your doctor clears you to return to work after a substantial time away, you can see if you and your employer can find a solution where you can be accommodated and they can employ you in a more limited manner.
Sometimes you can change the nature of your work and not need to apply for disability at all, and other times you will end up in a position where you need the funds from disability because your working hours are so short.
The important thing is that whatever you do, you are able to manage it in the long term. You do then have to prove that you have reached a point where you cannot improve further, or your improvement will be very incremental.
If you are lucky enough to have an employer willing to wait for your return and who is willing to accommodate your needs, you might want to see if you can maintain that job without applying for SSDI.
If you do need to apply, though, just make sure that you are keeping track of the accommodations and supports you have in place and are able to make the argument of why you cannot work more. Again, you would need to keep this income below SGA in order to have a chance of qualifying for SSDI.
The extra challenges when you have an invisible illness
If you have a condition that affects your state or frame of mind, or is more difficult to prove(mild traumatic brain injury, severe depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, or bipolar disorder, as examples), they are more likely to be suspicious of your employment.
This is another special cost of having an invisible illness. If you work, be sure that the job doesn’t conflict with your symptoms(severe social anxiety while working in customer service, or doing a very detail-oriented job when you have difficulty focusing, etc), and if possible explain how and why this job works for you, and why you cannot work more than you already are.
Conditions that are related to your perception of the world, or are otherwise difficult to quantify are always going to be more of a battle than obvious physical damage. There absolutely is hope, but be aware there is a lot of stigma around these conditions.
For example, my younger sister applied for SSDI several years after I did. She had suffered a Truamatic Brain Injury(TBI) while she was in high school, and dealt with many additional health issues.
A couple of years after she had started working, she injured her arm at work, which led to a severe nerve pain issue. She was able to get long-term disability from her employer but also needed to apply for SSDI to supplement that.
Even though her symptoms seemed more significant than mine in many ways(she was in severe pain, couldn’t use her injured arm much due to pain, had cognitive issues and needed huge amounts of rest, and was noise and light-sensitive, among other things), her application was rejected, and she eventually had to hire a lawyer and have a hearing about her status.
Because most of her symptoms were self-reported(just how do you prove that you have a migraine, let alone that it was caused by the bright light?), she had an extra fight on her hands, especially since it was the combination of symptoms that kept her from working, rather than a single obvious problem.
Documentation is even more essential if you have an invisible illness. If you can’t document it, it isn’t considered.
Make sure your doctors can and will go to bat for you, and that they can describe your symptoms well and how they affect your day to day life.
Make sure your doctors know that you are applying for disability, and that they agree with you that this is an appropriate step.
Having doctors affirm your claim will likely make or break your case. Make absolutely sure that if you are working, that your doctors know this and are supporting your actions, and can justify why you aren’t working any more than that.
Conclusion: Can you work while applying for disability?
It can be a very fine line between being too disabled to work and choosing not to work because it’s more challenging.
Working can increase your risk of not getting your benefits or having your ‘onset of disability’ start later(which affects when your Medicare benefits and your disability checks start).
However, if you stop working and social security declares that you could have worked, you also do not get benefits.
You could lose years in the fight for your benefits.
Think about what you can and can’t do, and what options you may have with your particular employer and work situation.
I know you will make the right decision for yourself. Please feel free to share your experiences or questions about working and applying for disability below!