SSDI and Work

If you’re getting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, it’s because your disability prevents you from working and earning enough to cover your expenses. However, you might want to give work a chance. That’s why SSDI has rules and incentives that can help you work without having to worry that you’ll lose the benefits you need.

For most people, SSDI’s work incentives function like a three-stage process that starts at the same time your SSDI benefits begin:

  1. During the Trial Work Period (TWP), you can work and get SSDI benefits at the same time, no matter how much you earn.
  2. After the Trial Work Period, the three-year Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) lets you work and get benefits for every month that your earnings are at or below the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level ($1,170 in 2017; $1,950 if you’re blind).
  3. For the first five years after you stop getting benefits, Expedited Reinstatement (EXR) means that if your earned income drops below the SGA level, you can quickly get back on SSDI benefits without having to completely reapply.

These three incentives mean that you can get a job and see how it goes. If it goes well, you’ll be in a better financial situation than before. If it doesn’t go well, you will be able to get SSDI benefits and be in the same situation as you were before you tried working.

DB101’s SSDI Work Rules Focus is a detailed example story showing SSDI’s work incentivesPopup Link.

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Trial Work Period (TWP)

After your SSDI benefits begin, you automatically enter your Trial Work Period (TWP). During the TWP, you can work for up to nine months in a five-year window without losing your benefits. During this time, it doesn’t matter how much you make at work; you still get your full SSDI benefits. This lets you try out work without having to worry about losing your SSDI benefits.

Here’s how it works:

Each month your gross earnings (earnings before taxes) are over the Trial Work level ($840 in 2017) is called a Trial Work month. (This Trial Work amount changes every year.)

You can work for nine Trial Work months over the course of a five-year window without losing your SSDI benefits. It doesn’t matter how much you make and it doesn’t matter whether your Trial Work months are in a row or spread out over the five years.

If you earn less in a month than the Trial Work level, you keep getting SSDI benefits and do not use up a Trial Work month.

Example

Carolyn gets SSDI benefits and recently started working part-time in a flower shop. Her hours vary from month to month. Her gross monthly earnings for the first four months of 2017 were:

Carolyn's Earnings

January:

$400

February:

$1,110

March:

$620

April:

$930

In February and April, Carolyn used up Trial Work months, because she earned more than $840. January and March weren’t Trial Work months, because she earned less than $840.

She got full SSDI benefits in all four months, because she still hasn’t used up all nine Trial Work months.

Note: Before you start working, check with Social Security or a benefits planner to see if you've already used up any Trial Work months. You may have used up some or all of your Trial Work months in the past without realizing it.

Count Your SSDI Trial Work Months:

Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE)

Once you use up all nine Trial Work months during a five-year window, your Trial Work Period is over and your three-year Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) begins.

During your EPE, you continue to get SSDI benefits for any month in which your gross monthly earnings are at or below the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level ($1,170 per month in 2017; $1,950 if you’re blind).

Here’s how it works:

The first time your monthly gross earnings go over the SGA level during the EPE, there’s a three-month Grace Period. For three months, you keep getting SSDI benefits no matter how much you make. Once your Grace Period ends, you do not get SSDI benefits in any month that you earn more than the SGA level.

If your earned income goes back under the SGA level, you can call Social Security and get your benefits reinstated. During the EPE, you can keep getting SSDI benefits for any month during which your earnings are at or below the SGA level.

At the end of the three-year EPE, if your earnings are at or below the SGA level, you keep getting SSDI benefits. If you are earning more than the SGA level, your SSDI benefits may end. If you earn more than the SGA level one month and your earned income drops below the SGA level the next month, you may no longer be able to get SSDI benefits reinstated automatically.

Example

Tony’s EPE begins in March. He earns $600 per month in March, April, and May. Because $600 is less than the SGA level, Tony gets SSDI benefits in each of these months.

In June, Tony earns $1,300. Because $1,300 is more than the SGA level ($1,170), his June earnings cause his Grace Period to begin. Tony gets SSDI benefits in June, July, and August because he’s in his three-month Grace Period.

In September, Tony earns $1,250. Because he’s used up his Grace Period and his earnings are above the SGA level, Tony doesn’t get SSDI benefits that month. In October, his earnings dip below the SGA level again. He contacts Social Security and get his SSDI benefits reinstated for the month. In November, he earns more than the SGA level and doesn’t get benefits.

During Tony’s three-year EPE, every month he earns less than the SGA level, he asks for reinstatement and gets SSDI benefits. Every month he earns more than the SGA level, he doesn’t.

Important: Tony needs to report any changes in his work and income to Social Security to avoid overpayments. Learn more about reporting to Social Security.

Deductions

When you apply for benefits, during the Extended Period of Eligibility, and during Expedited Reinstatement, there are some deductions that may help you lower your gross monthly earnings so that Social Security doesn’t count everything you make. Deductions can help you stay below the SGA level, so that you can work and get SSDI benefits.

Note: You cannot use these deductions during the Trial Work Period.

Two of the most common deductions are Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs) and subsidized earnings:

Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs)

IRWEs are costs related to your disability that you have to pay to do your job. IRWEs must be expenses that you pay for, not your health insurance or anyone else. Keep your receipts for all expenses you think are IRWEs. You need to include them with your pay stub or other earnings information when you report your earnings to Social Security.

Examples of IRWEs include money you spend on:

  • Personal Care Assistance (PCA) services that you use on the job
  • Special equipment related to your disability that you purchase for your job
  • Copayments for additional prescription drugs that you need because you are working

IRWEs are approved by the local Social Security office on a case-by-case basis. Try this form for reporting your IRWEs.

Estimate Your Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs):
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Subsidized Earnings

An employer may pay workers with serious medical conditions more in wages than their work is actually worth. When this occurs, the extra pay is counted as a subsidy rather than earnings.

Example

Jamie's gross earnings for the month are $1,310. She spends $50 each month on Personal Care Assistance at her job, which counts as an IRWE. She also gets a $200 wage subsidy from her employer, who is paying her as much as he paid her before her disability started, even though she doesn’t get as much work done as she used to.

Social Security would calculate her monthly earnings like this:

SSDI Countable Earnings with IRWEs and Wage Subsidy:

Because her countable monthly earnings after the deductions are less than the SGA level ($1,170), Jamie would get SSDI benefits for the month.

If you think you may be getting a subsidy, talk to a benefits planner to learn how to report it to Social Security.

Your SSDI Countable Earnings:

Expedited Reinstatement (EXR)

If you have already completed your Trial Work Period and Extended Period of Eligibility, Expedited Reinstatement (EXR) means you may be able to get SSDI benefits if your earned income drops below the SGA level:

If you used to get SSDI benefits and your benefits ended within the last five years, EXR means you can get up to six months of temporary SSDI cash benefits if your countable earned income drops below the SGA level. During your period of Expedited Reinstatement, you can deduct Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs) and employer subsidies from your gross monthly earnings to help you qualify for SSDI benefits.

During the six months of temporary benefits, Social Security does a medical review to see whether or not you still meet SSA disability requirements. If Social Security decides that you still have a disability, you keep getting benefits without having to reapply for SSDI. If they decide that you no longer have a disability, your SSDI benefits stop.