SSDI and Work

If you get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, it’s because your disability stops 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 that can help you work without having to worry that you’ll lose the benefits you need.

For most people, SSDI’s work incentives are a three-stage process that starts when 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 countable earnings are at or below the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level ($1,220 in 2019; $2,040 if you’re blind). At the end of your EPE, you will keep getting benefits as long as your countable earnings are below the SGA level. However, once your earnings go over the SGA level, your SSDI benefits will stop.
  3. For the first five years after you stop getting benefits, Expedited Reinstatement (EXR) means that if your countable earned income drops below the SGA level, you may be able to quickly get back on SSDI benefits without having to completely reapply.

These three stages let you get a job and see how it goes. If it goes well, you’re in a better financial situation than before. If it doesn’t go well, you keep getting SSDI benefits and are 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.

On SSDI? Get a quick estimate of how working may affect your income
Try It!

Trial Work Period (TWP)

After your SSDI benefits begin, you automatically enter your Trial Work Period (TWP). During your TWP, it doesn’t matter how much you make at work; you still get your full SSDI benefits. The TWP ends when you use nine Trial Work months within five years.

Here’s how it works:

Each month your gross earnings (earnings before taxes) are over the Trial Work level ($880 in 2019) is called a Trial Work month. (The Trial Work level changes every year.) During your Trial Work months, you continue to get full SSDI benefits.

If you earn less in a month than the Trial Work level, you also get your full SSDI benefits, but you do not use up a Trial Work month.

Example

Carolyn gets SSDI benefits and starts a part-time job in a flower shop. Her gross monthly earnings vary from month to month:

Carolyn's 2019 Earnings

January:

$400

February:

$1,150

March:

$620

April:

$970

In February and April, Carolyn earns more than $880 and uses up Trial Work months. In January and March, she earns less than $880 and doesn't use up Trial Work months.

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

Your Trial Work Period (TWP) ends when you use up all nine Trial Work months within a five-year period of time. It doesn’t matter if your Trial Work months are in a row or spread out over the five years:

  • Your TWP could be as short as nine months if you earn more than the Trial Work level for nine months in a row.
  • If you don't use up nine Trial Work months in five years, your TWP continues until you use up nine within a five-year period. Trial Work months from more than five years ago aren't counted.

Tip: Keep track of your earnings each month and note if they are over the Trial Work level. You can also check with Social Security or a Benefits Planner to see how many Trial Work months you've used. You may have used them up 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 still get SSDI benefits for any month in which your countable earned income (your gross monthly earnings minus sick leave pay, vacation pay, and other deductions) are at or below the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level ($1,220 per month in 2019; $2,040 if you’re blind).

Here’s how it works:

The first time your countable earned income goes 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. After your Grace Period, you do not get SSDI benefits for any month in which you earn more than the SGA level.

If your countable earned income drops 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 your earnings are over 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 during these months.

In June, Tony earns $1,350. He doesn't have any deducations and $1,350 is more than the SGA level ($1,220), so his three-month Grace Period begins. Tony still gets SSDI benefits in June, July, and August, because it's his Grace Period.

In September, Tony earns $1,300. He’s used up his Grace Period and his earnings are above the SGA level, so Tony isn't due any SSDI benefits for September. In October, his earnings dip below the SGA level again, so he is due his SSDI benefits for that month. In November, he earns more than the SGA level, so he isn't due SSDI benefits for the month.

During Tony’s three-year EPE, every month he earns less than the SGA level, he is due to get SSDI benefits. Every month he earns more than the SGA level, he isn’t due SSDI benefits.

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

Self-employment and SGA

If you are self-employed, Social Security looks at your earned income differently when it decides if the work you do is Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). Learn more about how Social Security compares self-employment to SGA.

Deductions

When Social Security compares your earnings to the SGA level, they don't count all of your gross monthly earnings. Instead, they look at your countable monthly earnings, which can include some deducations. These deductions can help you keep your countable earnings below the SGA level when you apply for benefits, during the Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE), and during Expedited Reinstatement (EXR), letting you 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 a medical condition 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 buy for your job
  • Copayments for prescription drugs that you need to be able to work

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):
Popup Link

Subsidized Earnings

An employer may pay workers with disabilities more in wages than their work is actually worth. When this happens, the extra pay is counted as a subsidy, not as earnings.

Example

Jamie's gross earnings for the month are $1,360. She spends $50 each month on personal care assistance at her job, which counts as an IRWE. She also gets $200 in subsidized earnings 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 calculates her monthly earnings like this:

SSDI Countable Earnings with IRWEs and Wage Subsidy:

Jamie's countable monthly earnings after the deductions are less than the SGA level ($1,220), so she gets SSDI benefits.

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)

After you complete your Trial Work Period (TWP) and Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE), you stop getting SSDI benefits if your countable earnings are at the SGA level or higher.

However, Expedited Reinstatement (EXR) means you may be able to get your SSDI benefits restarted quickly if your countable earned income drops back 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 ($1,220 in 2019; $2,040 if you’re blind). During EXR, 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 review to see if you have medically improved. If Social Security decides that you still have a disability, you keep getting benefits and don't have to reapply for SSDI. If they decide that you don't have a disability anymore, your SSDI benefits stop.