To meet Social Security’s definition of disability in Virginia you must prove that you’re unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) because of a physical or mental impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. Substantial gainful activity is a fancy term for work, but Social Security has specific definitions of work. This article addresses everything you should know about SGA when you’re applying for Social Security Disability. And it even answers the common question, “Can I work while on Social Security Disability or pursuing a claim for SSDI or SSI benefits?”

What is Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)?

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. Social Security may consider part-time work substantial. Full-time work is not the only type of work Social Security will consider when evaluating whether you’re performing SGA.

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 SGA 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 Activity to Determine if it is SGA?

Usually Social Security uses earnings guidelines to determine if your work activity is substantial gainful activity.

In 2017 the monthly SGA amount for non-blind persons is $1170. The amount for statutorily blind persons is $1,950.00. Social Security usually increases the monthly SGA amount each year.

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.

Examples of Activities that Social Security Does Not Consider SGA

The following activities are not considered substantial gainful activity:

  • 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.

I like to volunteer. Will Social Security Consider that SGA?

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.

Impairment-Related Work Expenses and Disability Claims

If you need special services or equipment related to your physical or mental disability so that you can work, then you have impairment-related work expenses (IRWE). Social Security may deduct the cost of these expenses from your earnings, which helps keep you under the SGA amount even if you’re working full-time. Examples of IRWEs include:

  • the cost of hiring a home health care aide to help you get ready for work
  • the cost of transportation to and from work because you’re unable to drive
  • the cost of hiring anothe employee to do a part of your job you can’t do because of your medical impairment
  • the cost of additional training to help you learn how to use special equipment necessary because of your disability.

You cannot receive reimbursement for these expenses if you want to deduct them from your SGA earnings.

Subsidized Employment and SGA

‘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.

Working While on SSD or SSI, or When Your Claim is Pending: The Trial Work Period

So yes, you are allowed to work after filing an application for SSDI or SSI. You are also allowed to work while receiving SSD or SSI. But there are limits.

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 your right 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 disability or mental disorder

Here is how the trial work system is set up: If you go back to work while receiving SSD, 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!

SSD and SSI claims are complex. When you need a Social Security Disability lawyer in Richmond, VA, call or e-mail us. Your consultation is free.