Return to Work

If you are receiving Social Security benefits, it is possible for you to return to work. The rules regarding returning to work while receiving social security benefits are explained below. Please note the rules are different for SSDI and SSI.

Rules for SSDI 
When you return to work while receiving SSDI you will not lose your benefits right away. You will be eligible for the Trial Work Period.

  • Trial Work Period: The Trial Work Period (TWP) is a nine-month period where you can earn any amount of money from work and keep your SSDI benefits.

    • Any month that you earn over the TWP limit counts as a TWP month.
    • If you earn less than the TWP limit it does not count as a TWP month.
    • TWP months do not have to be consecutive. In 2017, any month you earn over $840 counts as one of your nine TWP months in a five-year span.
    • You will receive your full SSDI benefits during your TWP.
    • TWP amounts for prior years were:
      • $810 in 2016
      • $780 in 2015
  • Extended Period of Eligibility: After you have exhausted your Trial Work Period months you will move into the Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE). The EPE lasts for three years. During the EPE you are entitled to your SSDI benefits during months when you earn less than Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). The SGA limit for 2017 is $1,170 per month. If you earn more than the SGA limit you are not entitled to your SSDI benefit that month. It is important to keep track of your earnings and report them to the Social Security Administration. If your earnings fluctuate you may be eligible for payments one month and not the next. If you receive a SSDI payment that you were not eligible to receive you will have to pay it back to Social Security. Also, Social Security counts your gross monthly wages (your pay before taxes). The SGA amounts for prior years were:
    • $1,130 in 2016
    • $1,090 in 2015

It is possible to reduce the income Social Security counts by these expenses:

  • Subsidies: If your workload has been reduced or modified due to your disability, but your compensation has remained the same, your earnings could be counted as a subsidy instead of income. This may happen when an employer wants to express appreciation for your prior service, even though you can no longer fully perform the job.
  • Business Related Expenses: People who are self–employed can deduct a reasonable cost of business–related expenses from their monthly gross earnings.
  • Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs): These are expenses that are necessary to go to work and stay on the job, including most drugs and medical services. IRWEs can also include items such as personal attendant care, modifications to your home, and special transportation (such as cab fare). All IRWEs can be deducted from your gross monthly earnings. Social Security must approve any IRWE deductions.

Here's an example: You earn $1,200 a month before taxes. Because of your disability, you must take a cab to and from your job. This transportation expense totals $300 a month. Social Security will subtract that $300 from your gross monthly wages of $1,200. That means only $900 a month of your wages will be counted by Social Security. Since this amount is less than $1,170 a month, your SSDI benefits will continue.

$1,200 (gross monthly earnings)
– $300 (cab fare)
$900 (countable wages)

  • Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS): If you have a specific goal that will help you to become self-sufficient PASS is a way to save money for that purpose. PASS can be used for school, a new car, interview clothes, business start up costs or temporary day care costs.
  • For the first 5 years after your Trial Work Period ends, you can ask to have your benefits reinstated if you get sick again. That's called "expedited reinstatement." Social Security will give you provisional benefits for up to 6 months while they review your case to see if you are still disabled. If you are still disabled, you will get your benefits reinstated.
  • To decide if you are still medically disabled, Social Security does something called a Continuing Disability Review (CDR). Sometimes you get a CDR even if you don't go back to work, since Social Security reviews your case every 5 to 7 years no matter what. In the past, Social Security did a special CDR if you went back to work. Now they only do a CDR if you have been receiving Social Security benefits for less than 2 years before you return to work.

During a CDR, Social Security will look at your medical records to decide if you are still disabled. Some people with HIV will clearly still be disabled; you may still have CMV or peripheral neuropathy or one of the other conditions that Social Security always considers severely disabling. But other people with HIV may have a harder time proving that they are still disabled. If you originally got benefits because of severe fatigue, night sweats and sinusitis, for example, and those conditions have improved so you are functioning a lot better, then Social Security might conclude that you are no longer disabled under their rules.

Rules for SSI 
As you earn income while receiving SSI, your SSI income goes down. If you earn too much money, your SSI payment ends completely. But Social Security wants people on SSI to work, so they don't count some of the money you earn when they are calculating how much your SSI check will be. Social Security subtracts the income you earn from your regular SSI amount. Social Security does not, however, count the first $65 you earn each month. After your first $65 is disregarded, they only count half of your remaining monthly income. This is called the “earned income disregard.”

Here is an example: You receive $674 from SSI. You go back to work and earn $600 a month. Here’s how SSI will calculate your SSI check:

$600.00 (gross monthly earnings)
– $65.00 (first $65 you earn each month is disregarded)
$535.00 (what Social Security counts)

Then Social Security counts only half of the remaining amount:

$535.00 / 2 = $267.50 (countable earned income)

Even though you make $600 a month, SSA will only count your income as $267.50 each month.

Let’s say your SSI benefit used to be $674/month before you started working. SSA will now subtract your countable earned income from your monthly benefit.

$674.00 (previous SSI benefit)
– $267.50 (countable earned income)
$406.50 (new monthly benefit)

Your SSI check will now be $406.50. The $600 from your employment in addition to the $406.50 from SSI will increase your total monthly income to $1,006.50.

There are ways to reduce your countable income while receiving SSI. They are:

  • Subsidies: If your employer pays you and you are not really doing the work that would be required of someone else doing your job, your earnings could be a considered as a subsidy and the money would not be counted as income. This may happen when an employer wants to be nice to you in appreciation of your prior service even though you can no longer fully perform the job.
  • Business Related Expenses: People who are self-employed can deduct a reasonable cost of business-related expenses from their monthly gross earnings.
  • Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs): These are expenses that are necessary to go to work and stay on the job, including most drugs and medical services. IRWEs can also include items such as personal attendant care, modifications to your home, and special transportation (such as cab fare). All IRWEs can be deducted from your gross monthly earnings. Social Security must approve any IRWE deductions.
  • Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS): If you have a specific goal that will help you to become self-sufficient PASS is a way to save money for that purpose. PASS can be used for school, a new car, interview clothes, business start-up costs or temporary day care costs.
  • Student Earned Income Exclusion: If you are under 22 and a student, Social Security will not count $1,790 of your monthly income when calculating your SSI payment. The maximum amount that can be excluded in a year is $7,200 in 2017.
  • 1619b: If your income is high enough for your SSI payment to be $0 you may be eligible to keep your Medical Assistance under 1619b. In order to be eligible for 1619b you must:
    • Meet the SSI asset limit of $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a household of two.
    • Continue to need and use your Medical Assistance coverage.
    • Respond to all Social Security requests for information.
    • Have annual income less than $52,794 in 2017.