Key Things You Need to Know About Social Security Disability at Work

Social Security is more than just a retirement program for Americans. The social security system also provides disability benefits if you find yourself unable to work. Social security disability benefits can serve as an income stream for you and your family when you’re struck by serious illnesses or accidents.

There are two types of benefits falling under social security disability. One is supplemental security income (SSI), which caters to older adults and persons with disabilities (regardless of age) living with limited income and resources. The other is social security disability insurance (SSDI), which supports disabled individuals with a qualifying work history. The Social Security Administration reported that 571,952 Americans received SSDI benefits in 2021 alone.

Today, we’ll focus on the second type of benefit, SSDI, which is relevant to employees applying for social security disability benefits.

Here are some of the key things you need to know about social security disability at work:

Benefits are earned simply by working

Spencer Bishins notes in Social Security Disability Revealed that disability insurance benefits are earned by working either as an employee or an independent contractor. In both instances, workers need to pay a tax called the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI). This tax is essentially the premium they pay to participate in the OASDI program. Bishin emphasizes that both the employer and the employee contribute 12.4% of income in equal shares towards this tax.

As you work, you build up “work credits” with social security. These credits determine the amount you can claim under the OASDI program. The number of credits you will need to claim depends on your age and the years you have worked prior to becoming disabled.

You must have a qualifying disability

Social Security uses a strict definition of disability that considers the severity and the length of your disability. To be qualified under SSDI, the disability must be total rather than partial or short-term. This criterion is different from the definition of disability which we highlighted in our blog post examining the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Unlike the ADA, the Social Security Program distinguishes short-term disability from total disability. It assumes that employees that do not have a total disability can access other resources such as savings, investments, and worker’s compensation.

If you cannot work and engage in substantial gainful activity due to your condition, and your condition is expected to last at least one year or to result in death, you are qualified to access disability insurance benefits.

Documentation is needed to file claims

Social Security requires adequate documentation before workers can claim their benefits. The Social Security system works aggressively to prevent, detect, and prosecute fraudulent claims. It also follows a five-step process to determine if a worker is eligible to receive disability insurance benefits. The five questions it asks are:

  • Are you working?
  • Is your condition “severe”?
  • Is your condition found in the list of disabling conditions?
  • Can you do the work you did previously?
  • Can you do any type of work?

Social Security follows specific guidelines to evaluate the type of work, the severity of the condition, and the capacity of the claimant to perform other work. Their zero-tolerance policy ensures that suspicious claims are spotted early and that the benefits are given to those who genuinely need them.

There are special rules for certain disabilities and situations

Other than the criteria we just described, there are certain special situations that the Social Security program also considers eligible for disability insurance benefits. For example, if you do not meet the legal definition of blindness set by Social Security rules, you may still claim your benefit if your vision problems alone or combined with other health problems prevent you from working.

The program also considers the worker’s widows or widowers and their children as eligible for disability insurance benefits. They qualify if they have a disability that meets the same criteria set for the workers.


Social Security Disability Insurance is an integral part of the Social Security system. It serves as a lifeline for workers facing hardship and who can no longer support themselves due to a severe and long-lasting disability. This benefit provides another layer of protection for workers and secures their right to a dignified quality of life.

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