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Some people have no choice but to work despite their disability. They struggle through the work day because they need the income to support themselves and their families. They may be able to work a part-time job with reduced hours, or with extra breaks, or by getting help from co-workers with their more physical job duties.
As a threshold matter, in order to be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, you must meet the definition of “disability” under the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) rules and regulations. There is a five-step process or analysis that the SSA uses to evaluate each claim and determine if you are disabled. In general, to meet the definition of disability you must be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.
Substantial Gainful Activity
Generally, SSA looks to see whether you are able to engage in substantial gainful activity by looking at your earnings from work activity. If you had substantial earnings then you will not be eligible for benefits. However, if you are forced to stop work or reduce your hours below the substantial gainful activity level because of your impairment(s); then the work activity you were doing may be considered an unsuccessful work attempt, and any earnings derived from that work activity would not be considered substantial gainful activity.
What is substantial gainful activity? Substantial gainful activity is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities for pay or profit (20 CFR 404.1572(a). The Regulations set forth the monthly amount that constitutes substantial gainful employment by using a formula which varies from year to year. (20 CFR 404.1574; 416.974). For example, for the year 2020 the monthly amount is $1260; for 2019 the monthly amount was $1220; for 2018 the monthly amount was $1180. Keep in mind that these figures are just guidelines, and that even if you are making less than these amounts, the work may still be considered substantial gainful employment.
For example, an individual who worked picking fruit, a seasonal job, with earnings under substantial gainful activity levels, was still deemed to have engaged in substantial gainful activity. It was determined that this individual chose to only work seasonally, which had nothing to do with her impairments. Also, it was noted that she had worked continuously for years during the fruit picking seasons, which involved significant physical activity. Remember, the definition of substantial gainful activity is work that involves significant physical or mental activity, even if done on a part-time basis. Thus, the earning amounts set forth in the Regulations are only a presumption of substantial gainful activity. Earnings alone are not conclusive of whether you were engaged in substantial gainful activity, even if your earnings exceed the levels set forth in the Regulations. SSA does not just consider your earnings, but other factors such as the nature of the work, whether the work is done under special conditions, whether it is self-employed work, and the amount of time spent working.
In an alternate example, an individual exceeded substantial gainful activity levels yet SSA found no substantial gainful activity. This individual worked during three different periods of time lasting about three months each, where each period of work ended with the individual being hospitalized and undergoing surgery; these did not amount to substantial gainful activity. The work activity itself established that the individual did not have the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. The individual’s impairments precluded sustained occupational activity. In addition, the employer made efforts to accommodate the work situation due to the impairments, which supported that the individual did not have the capability to engage in substantial gainful activity.
What if I Earn Over Substantial Gainful Activity Levels?
If your earnings exceed substantial gainful activity, then you typically will not meet the criteria for disability under social security disability, unless you can demonstrate that your work activity constituted an unsuccessful work attempt.
An unsuccessful work attempt occurs when after working for 6 months or less you were forced to stop work due to your impairment(s); or were forced to reduce your work such that earnings fell below substantial gainful activity levels. There are certain criteria that must be met before your work attempt will be considered an unsuccessful work attempt:
- There must be a significant break in work before the work attempt begins. Significant break means at least 30 consecutive days of not working, or a change to another type of work, or to another employer.
- You must have stopped working or reduced your work because of your impairment, or because of the removal of special conditions essential to the performance of your work.
Special conditions refer to situations such as requiring assistance from other employees in performing your work, taking more frequent breaks than normal, getting special equipment or being assigned work suited to your impairment, or working under other special circumstances such as was permitted to perform at a lower standard of productivity than other employees, or was given the opportunity to work because of family relationship, past association with the employer, or charity. In other words, a severely impaired individual may have only been able to work under conditions which accommodated his or her impairment.
If you work more than 6 months above the substantial gainful activity level, then your work will not be considered an unsuccessful work attempt regardless of why it ended or whether it was reduced below substantial gainful activity earnings.
Get a Free Consultation with LaBovick Law Group
As demonstrated in this article, there are different factors to consider when determining if you have engaged in substantial gainful activity and whether pursuing a claim for social security benefits is the right path for you. At the LaBovick Law Group, we provide free consultations where we will review the facts of your case to determine if this is the right program for you. Call us today at (561) 625-8400 for your free evaluation.