"Gainful work activity” is Social Security's term for work you do for pay or profit. Employment that provides income above a certain level is considered “substantial gainful activity,” or SGA, and renders you ineligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
The SGA limit is adjusted annually to reflect changes in national average wages. In 2021, it's $1,310 a month ($2,190 for blind people). If you make more than that, your application for SSDI benefits will be denied. If you already are receiving benefits, you'll lose them in most circumstances if your income rises above the cap.
The strict limits grow out of the core purpose of Social Security disability benefits: to provide financial support to people temporarily or permanently unable to work because of a medical condition. You are allowed to do some paying work while drawing disability benefits. But if you are able to do “substantial” work, the reasoning goes, you are not, by definition, disabled.
The substantial gainful activity test applies to all applicants for SSDI as well as ongoing recipients of SSDI. For Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the other Social Security-administered benefit for people with disabilities, it comes into play only at the filing stage.
That means you can be denied SSI if your work income exceeds the SGA limit when you file for benefits. But the substantial gainful activity limit does not apply once you are getting SSI, although you will be subject to separate, SSI-specific limits on income. People who get SSI on the basis of blindness are exempt from income limits, and the substantial gainful activity limit does not apply to them at any point.
For wage earners, SGA is measured in gross pay. If you are self-employed, Social Security applies net income to the cap but may weigh other measures of work activity to determine if your gainful activity is substantial. For example, it might consider the number of hours you put into managing your business or whether your professional activity is comparable, in terms of time, skills and duties, to that of nondisabled people doing the same type of work.
When you can earn more than SGA
The limits on substantial gainful activity have some exceptions, particularly for disabled beneficiaries trying to return to the labor force.
The Social Security Administration allows people on SSDI to engage in trial work for up to nine months. In these months, which don't need to be consecutive and can be spread out over five years, you can receive your full benefit regardless of your income.
After the trial work period (TWP), if you are in steady employment that pays above SGA, you lose your monthly benefits but get what Social Security calls an “extended period of eligibility.” For the next three years, you can get your benefit in any month in which your income falls below the SGA mark without having to reapply for SSDI.
In addition, disabled beneficiaries may reduce their income for SGA purposes by deducting some expenses for products and services that enable them to work, such paratransit, assistive technology, medication or a service animal. If deductible expenses bring your monthly wages under $1,310 (or $2,190 if you are blind), you will not be considered to be exceeding the cap.
You can find more information on the work rules and exceptions for SSI and SSDI beneficiaries in the Social Security pamphlet Working While Disabled: How We Can Help.
Keep in mind
- Even if you are making less than the SGA cap, Social Security can end your benefits if it determines, via periodic medical reviews or other evidence, that you are able to return to substantial work because of changes in your condition or capabilities.
- Disabled beneficiaries are obligated to report changes in their job status or income to Social Security. You can do this by phone at 800-772-1213, by mail to your local Social Security office, or in person once offices reopen post-pandemic. You can also use a My Social Security account to report wages online.
Published July 2, 2021