Under Social Security's rules, if you can perform "substantial gainful activity" (SGA), you're not eligible for disability benefits. Substantial gainful activity means engaging in significant and productive physical or mental work activities that could be performed for pay or profit (even if you're not getting paid or making a profit).
What constitutes SGA can be difficult to determine, especially if you're self-employed or if your employer subsidizes your employment. But the general rule is that if you earn over the SGA amount—a monthly earning threshold set by the Social Security Administration (SSA)—then you're not considered disabled.
For 2023, the SGA limit is $1,470 per month for most applicants and $2,460 if you're legally blind. With few exceptions, Social Security won't consider anyone disabled who's earning more than the monthly SGA limit.
Even if you're able to work some of the time, you might still qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. But earning too much can disqualify you.
First, Social Security defines "disability" as being unable to engage in SGA due to medical impairments for at least one year (or a shorter time period if you have a terminal illness). If you're working and earning above the SGA limit (called "performing SGA") when you apply for benefits, Social Security will automatically deny your disability application without even considering any medical evidence.
If your monthly earnings don't rise to the level of SGA—as is frequently the case with part-time jobs—your application will get past the first step of Social Security's determination process.
The SSA uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if you're disabled and qualified for benefits. The agency will ask these five questions:
But Social Security initially denies about 65% of all disability applications. That means that odds are you'll need to appeal your application after you get denied. And the administrative law judge (ALJ) who presides over your disability appeal hearing can consider any work you're performing when deciding whether or not you're disabled—even if you earn less than the SGA limit.
There are some situations in which earning above the SGA amount won't keep you from qualifying for disability benefits.
Sometimes you might receive more pay than your services are truly worth—a situation Social Security calls "subsidized employment." This can happen in "sheltered workshops" or when your employer is a friend or family member who's trying to help you.
If you've been placed in a job through a vocational rehabilitation agency, you might also receive special considerations—from extra rest breaks to relaxed productivity standards. In these sorts of situations, Social Security will attempt to determine the actual value of the services rendered rather than taking your earnings at face value.
In these subsidized employment situations, even if you earn more than the SGA threshold, Social Security might still consider you disabled.
If you work and earn the SGA amount for six months or less and then quit working (or start earning less than the SGA level), this could count as what Social Security calls an "unsuccessful work attempt" (UWA). But you must have quit or lowered your hours because of medical reasons or the removal of special accommodations. (And note that an UWA can only begin after you've had an extended break from any previous employment.)
Social Security generally pays disability back to the date you became unable to work because of your impairment (called your disability onset date). But if Social Security determines that your last job counts as UWA, your established date of disability could be earlier, and you'd be eligible for more back benefits.
If you're already approved for SSDI, you're entitled to one "trial work period" (TWP). Trial work periods are meant as an incentive to see if you can return to the labor force.
During a TWP, you can work over the SGA level for up to nine months over a 60-month rolling period, while still receiving monthly disability checks.
Also, if you've received SSI benefits for at least a month, you can start to earn over the SGA level without losing benefits. But you'll need to be able to show that you're still disabled despite being able to do SGA.
All wages and work-related pre-tax income is counted for SGA purposes—even illegal activity like drug dealing and prostitution count. But some other sources of income don't count toward the SGA limit, including money you receive through:
If you have impairment-related work expenses (IRWE) that allow you to work, the costs are subtracted from your earnings when determining your SGA, but only if you paid the expenses yourself. Some examples of IRWE that won't count toward the SGA limit include:
It's considerably more difficult for Social Security to determine whether a self-employed person is engaging in SGA. Often the net profits of your business bear little relationship to the amount of work you're actually performing.
Because of this, when you're self-employed, Social Security considers:
Social Security also subtracts "unincurred business expenses" from your net earnings to determine SGA. For example, if friends or family volunteer to help with your business, it's considered an unincurred business expense. The value of the work they do for free would be subtracted from your net earnings because without their help you'd have to hire someone to do that work.
Likewise, if someone donates equipment to your business (like if your church gave you a computer to use), that's also considered an unincurred business expense, and its value would be subtracted from your net earnings in determining SGA. Learn more about getting Social Security disability benefits when you're self-employed.