Substantial Gainful Activity (Employment) and Social Security Disability


To get on disability, you must prove that you are unable to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA) due to a physical or mental medical impairment. Substantial gainful activity is a fancy term for work.


This article explains how the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines that you are engaged in substantial gainful activity. If you have questions about whether you should apply for disability in Virginia, or if you are looking for a top-rated Richmond disability attorney or Newport News disability lawyer to appeal your denied SSD claim, contact Corey Pollard for a free consultation: 804-251-1620 or 757-810-5614.


What is the Definition of Substantial Gainful Activity?


Social Security uses the term substantial gainful activity to describe certain levels of work activity, volunteering, and earnings.


Work is “substantial” if you have to do significant physical or mental activities to carry out your tasks. Full-time and part-time work may be considered substantial activity.


Work activity is “gainful” if:


  • You are working for pay or profit;
  • You are not getting paid but the work you are doing is of a nature usually performed for pay or profit; or
  • You are performing work to get paid, whether you realize a profit or not


Social Security uses the substantial gainful activity test for two reasons: 1) to determine if you are eligible to receive disability benefits when you file your initial application and 2) to determine if you are eligible to continue receiving disability benefits after you return to work and complete a trial work period.


How Does Social Security Evaluate Work to Determine if it is Substantial Gainful Activity?


The SSA considers a person who is earning more than a certain monthly amount to be engaging in substantial gainful activity. The amount of monthly earnings considered as substantial gainful activity depends on your disability. People who are statutorily blind have a higher SGA amount than people who are not blind.


The SSA adjusts the SGA amount each year. The monthly substantial gainful activity amount for statutorily blind individuals is $1,970 for 2018. The monthly substantial gainful activity amount for non-blind individuals is $1,180 for 2018.


What do these numbers mean? As a general rule, you are not eligible for SSDI or SSI benefits during a specific period if you earn more than the monthly SGA amount during that period. No matter how disabled you are, your claim will likely be denied if you earn above the applicable amount.


How Do I Prove That I Am Not Engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity?


There are three ways to prove that you are not working, or that if you are, your earnings are below the SGA level for Social Security disability:


Your testimony. At hearing your disability lawyer will ask you whether you have worked since applying for SSD benefits. If you have worked, a good attorney will ask you to describe all the problems you had in performing that job, the accommodations you received on that job, and, why you can no longer do that job.


Your pay stubs. If you have worked, provide your attorney with copies of all pay stubs that you’ve received since filing for disability benefits. Your attorney an use these earnings to show that you haven’t been engaged in SGA.


Your Social Security disability earnings report. The SSA will produce your earnings history from the IRS. Your attorney can use these reports to prove that you were not engaged in SGA during the period in question


Examples of Activities that Social Security Does Not Consider SGA


The following activities are not considered substantial gainful activity by the SGA:


  • Things you do to take care of yourself and family
  • Household chores
  • Occupational or physical therapy
  • Mental health counseling
  • Attending classes
  • Going to church


Though Social Security won’t find you ineligible for disability benefits based on the above activities, it may still consider them as evidence of whether you are disabled. Administrative law judges often ask about your ability to take care of family members and the household in determining whether to approve your claim.


Is Volunteering Considered Substantial Gainful Activity?


Social Security may find you are capable of performing substantial gainful activity even if you are volunteering and not getting paid for a task. Volunteer work can show that you’re capable of performing paid work at the SGA level.


Below is a list of situation where volunteering can lead to your application being denied:


  • You spend more than 10 hours per week volunteering
  • The volunteer work is physically or mentally demanding
  • You are volunteering for a business owned by a friend or family member, where everyone else is paid.


You can however volunteer for the programs below without repercussions. Social Security will not consider volunteer work for these organizations as SGA:


  • Service Corps of Retired Executives;
  • Retired Senior Volunteer Program; or
  • Foster Grandparent Program.


Is Subsidized Employment Considered Substantial Gainful Activity?

We see subsidized employment often.


An employer, usually a family member or friend, pays you more than the actual value of your labor because you’re disabled. If this is being done for you, Social Security will consider the extra amount a subsidy and will not count it against you when determining if you’re performing SGA.


Trial Work Period


You are allowed to work after becoming eligible for SSD benefits.


If you are receiving Title II Social Security Disability benefits, also known as SSDI or DIB, then SGA-level earnings are still a concern. You do not, however, give up your disability benefits immediately because you are allowed a trial work period.


Social Security’s trial work system assumes that a person who is disabled may try to go back to work, but that he or she may not be able to keep the job for health reasons. This is a common situation. Many disabled adults go back to work only to find that they are unable to even do lighter work than before because of their physical or mental disability.


Here is how the trial work system is set up: If you go back to work while receiving SSDI, you can earn as much as you like, even more than the SGA threshold. If however you earn more than SGA after nine months of working, your benefits will be stopped. So you have a nine-month trial work period that will not affect your benefits.


The nine months do not have to be consecutive. This allows you flexibility in trying to go back to work while receiving disability benefits.


What if you go back to work for several months but do not earn SGA? Then that month does not count toward your trial work period.


You should update your local Social Security office on your work efforts and earnings. By doing so, you can avoid a situation where you are receiving benefits even though you are not eligible. We have noticed an increase in the SSA’s efforts to recover these types of overpayments.


If you are receiving Title 16 disability benefits, also known as Supplemental Security Income or SSI, there is no trial work period. SSI is means-based. What you receive in SSI may be reduced by how much you earn – even if you earn less than SGA.


Get Help with Your Social Security Claim Now!


Proving that you are not engaged in substantial gainful activity is just the first step of the Social Security disability process. For help navigating the process and getting the cash benefits you deserve, call Corey Pollard today for a free consultation. We represent disabled adults across Virginia, including those in Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Fredericksburg, Roanoke, and Charlottesville. We are ready to help you and your family.