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If I can still work a less skilled job can I qualify for SSDI benefits?

What happens if you become disabled and you can no longer work your current job but you are able to get a job working for less pay at a less strenuous job? Can you get federal disability to compensate you for your lost wages or are you simply out of luck?

These are great questions, but to understand the answer you must understand the disability process. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a wage replacement program provided to workers who have a severe mental or physical health condition which is expected to last for at least 12 continuous months and who are no longer able to work or to perform work at a “substantial level.”

The question above is really asking about substantial work and what the SSA will consider substantial. The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines “substantial gainful activity” as doing any type of mental or physical activity which is “substantial”, which for a non-blind applicant is making a gross income of $1,000 per month (for 2011) and $1,640 per month for the blind (for 2011).

According to the Social Security Administration, activity does not have to be performed full-time to be substantial. Does the claimants have to “work” a full-time job 40 hours per week? No, activity can be gainful under the Social Security Administration’s definition if it is:

• Work performed for pay or profit.
• Work which normally receives pay or profit
• Work which is intended for profit even if the claimant does not make a profit

Whether you can perform a lower paying job is not really the question. If you are working and making too much money, regardless of the severity of your health condition, it will not matter what type of job you are performing, the SSA will say you are NOT disabled and you will be denied benefits.

The SSA says I could retrain for new work what does this mean?

What if you are not currently working because you could not perform your current job anymore? We talked above about working at a substantial level, and if you are not working at all, clearly you are not performing “substantial gainful activity,” but not having a job is not the same as not being able to PERFORM a job.

Many claimants are denied either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits because the SSA claims they could retrain for new work. This can be confusing unless you understand how the SSA makes their disability determination.

To determine disability the Social Security Administration uses the “sequential evaluation process.” This is a series of questions created by the SSA to determine if claimants qualify for SSDI benefits:

1. Are you engaged in “substantial gainful activity”?
2. Is your condition severe?
3. Is your condition on the Social Security Administration’s Listing of Impairments or “Blue Book”?
4. Can you perform the work you performed in the past?
5. Can you be retrained for new work?

Many claimants are denied at step 5 of the Sequential Evaluation Process. If you are not working you will meet step 1, but the SSA will also continue through the evaluation process to determine if you could retrain for new work.

So to answer the question, if you can work a less strenuous job or perform "substantial gainful activity” the SSA will consider you not disabled, regardless of whether or not you make as much money as you made in your previous job.