SSI and Work

If you are eligible for SSI benefits, the program uses a countable income calculation to figure out the size of your benefits amount. (You can learn about countable and uncountable income on the DB101 page The SSI Benefit.) Roughly speaking, if you earn $2 additional dollars from work, you lower your SSI benefits by only $1.

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Most people on SSI benefits who go to work end up better off financially. Even though their SSI benefits go down, their total income will almost always be higher. Social Security wants you to go back to work if you are able to. There are programs and special features in the SSI program that can help. Any program or feature that makes it easier for you to go to work is called a work incentive.

Even if you earn enough money and your SSI benefits amount goes to zero, you’re not “out” of the SSI program. Many people can keep their Medi-Cal coverage even after their SSI benefits amount goes to zero. Most can have their SSI benefits restarted easily if their income suddenly drops for any reason, if they are still disabled.

Work Expenses

Social Security knows that you may have extra expenses when you go to work. Some of your work expenses can be called Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs). If you are blind, still more expenses can be counted as Blind Work Expenses (BWEs). IRWEs and BWEs are used in figuring out your countable earned income. Both may keep your SSI benefits amount higher when you are working.

You need to report your IRWEs or BWEs to Social Security when you report your income. You must include receipts.

Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs)

Not every expense is a work expense, and not every work expense is an IRWE.

To qualify as an IRWE, all of the following have to be true:

  • You bought an item or service that you need to work.
  • You need that item or service because of a serious health condition.
  • You paid for it yourself and nobody reimbursed you for the cost.
  • You paid a reasonable price for it.
  • You were working during the month you paid the expense.
  • You can fully document the expense with receipts.
  • IRWEs are approved at the local Social Security office on a case-by-case basis.
Example

Musetta uses a wheelchair. She enlarges her bedroom door and adds a ramp outside her house so she can get from her porch to the street. Both modifications make it possible for her to get to work and can be counted as IRWEs.

IRWEs make your countable earned income smaller — which makes your SSI benefits amount larger.

Countable Earned Income (Non-Blind SSI Recipients):
Estimate Your Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs):
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Blind Work Expenses (BWEs)

Blind Work Expenses can be any expense that is necessary to let you work. Unlike an IRWE, a BWE does not have to be related to your blindness or other medical condition.

Examples of BWEs that would not be allowed as IRWEs:
  • Federal, state, and local income taxes
  • Social Security taxes
  • Visual and sensory aids
  • Translation of materials into Braille
  • Professional association fees
  • Union fees

The countable earned income rules are different if you meet the SSI requirements for blindness.

Countable Earned Income (Blind SSI Recipients):

Notice that the BWEs are subtracted after dividing by 2, rather than before. This works in your favor to keep your SSI benefits amount higher.

Working Students: The Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE)

SSI makes it easy to earn some money if you’re going to school. The Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE) allows students to earn up to $1,870 per month without having those wages count as part of their countable income.

The SEIE applies for SSI recipients who are:

  • Under 22 years old; and
  • Regularly attending school.

For the SEIE, regular school attendance means:

  • Attending a college or university for at least 8 hours a week under a semester or quarter system
  • Being in grades 7 – 12 for at least 12 hours a week
  • Being in a course of training (with shop practice) to prepare for a paying job for at least 15 hours a week
  • Being in a course of training (without shop practice) for 12 hours a week

If there are reasons beyond your control that prevent you from going to school quite this much, Social Security can make an exception to these rules.

The SEIE lets you keep the first $1,870 in earnings each month in the countable earned income calculation. But there’s an annual cap of $7,550, so if you earn more than this in any given year, the income starts counting again.

Example: Nick is 20, attending classes at his local city college, and earning $1,800/month in a summer job. He has no other unearned income and no IRWEs.

The SEIE allows him to keep $1,870/month. The general exclusion ($20) and earned income exclusion ($65) reduce his remaining countable earned income to zero. His SSI benefits amount remains $931.72 and he gets to keep his earnings.

Nick's Countable Earned Income (with SEIE):
Your Countable Earned Income (with SEIE):

However, if his job lasts more than a few months, he’ll hit the $7,550 annual cap. At that point, his full earnings will come into the calculation — and his SSI benefits amount will go way down.

Nick's Countable Earned Income in Later Months (without SEIE):

Nick’s increased countable income means that his SSI benefits amount is now almost zero.

Other Help in Going to Work

Saving for an Employment Goal: Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS)

SSI has strict resource limits ($2,000 for an individual, $3,000 for a couple). But these limits can make it hard to go back to work. If you need to save enough money to pay for college classes or buy a delivery truck, you’ll run into the resource limit pretty quickly.

Social Security’s Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) is for people on SSI or SSDI who want to save money for a work-related goal that will help them achieve self-sufficiency, such as saving money for school or to start a business.

To set up a PASS, you must:

  • Be on SSI or be eligible for SSI
  • Have another source of earned or unearned income, such as SSDI or a job; or
  • Have resources over $2,000 to fund your PASS
  • Have a particular work goal in mind that will allow you to earn enough to get off disability benefits
  • Be able to write down a plan that shows how saving a certain amount of money will allow you to reach your goal

When you have a PASS, you set aside a certain amount of money (other than SSI) each month towards your work goal. The money you set aside won’t count toward your SSI countable income, and the savings you build won’t count against your SSI resource limit. That way, SSI can keep paying for your basic needs while you get ready to work.

To learn more about PASS, read the DB101 article about Plans to Achieve Self-Support.

Saving for Specific Goals: Individual Development Accounts (IDAs)

An Individual Development Account (IDA) is a special savings account. If you are working and qualify for an IDA, you can put some of your earnings into the IDA to save for a specific goal. A goal might be going to college, making a down payment on a first home, or starting a business.

Most IDA programs will add from $1 to $4 to your IDA account for every dollar you put in yourself. This makes an IDA a very attractive way to save money.

There are many different IDA programs available. Some are funded by the federal government, others by the state, and still others by private companies or nonprofits.

If your IDA is funded by the federal government, then:

  • The earnings you put into the IDA don’t count as earned income when SSI figures out your benefits
  • The matching money the IDA adds to your contribution doesn’t count as SSI earned income
  • The IDA account itself doesn’t count against your SSI resource limit

To learn more about IDAs, read the DB101 article on Individual Development Accounts.

Saving for the Future: ABLE Accounts

If your disability began before you turned 26, you can open an ABLE account where over time you can save up to $100,000 in resources and not have them counted by SSI. ABLE accounts mean that if you get a job (or even if you don't), you can save some money without losing your benefits. Additionally, the money in an ABLE account gets tax advantages similar to the way retirement accounts work.

However, ABLE accounts have restrictions:

  • They can only be opened through specific programs or institutions.
  • You can only open one ABLE account.
  • You and the other people making contributions on your behalf have a limit on how much you can deposit each year. Combined, you cannot deposit more than $15,000 in 2019.
  • You can only use money in an ABLE account for specific things, such as:
    • Education
    • Housing
    • Transportation
    • Help getting and keeping work
    • Health care
    • Assistive technology, and
    • Other approved expenses.
  • A person can only have one ABLE account.

To learn more about ABLE accounts, read DB101's article on Building Your Assets and Wealth.

Getting Employment-Related Services: Ticket to Work Program

Sometimes all you need to go to work is some career counseling or job training or help writing a business plan.

Under the Ticket to Work Program rules, all adult beneficiaries aged 18 – 64 who get SSI or SSDI cash benefits are eligible. You can participate in the Ticket to Work Program immediately or wait until a later time when you feel ready to work. The Ticket does not have an expiration date. You can go to the Ticket to Work Choose Work website to find a list of Ticket to Work services providers in your area. As long as you are using Ticket to Work services, Social Security will not do a medical review of your disability.

To learn more, read DB101’s article on Ticket to Work.

SSI, Work, and Health Coverage

SSI recipients automatically get Medi-Cal. One reason why people worry about going to work is that they are concerned about losing their health coverage. Fortunately, it is usually possible to keep Medi-Cal coverage even if your SSI benefits amount goes to zero because of earnings.

1619(b)

If you’re on SSI and Medi-Cal, and your SSI benefits amount goes to zero because you go back to work, a part of the SSI rules called the 1619(b) work incentive allows you to keep your Medi-Cal coverage.

To keep your Medi-Cal coverage under 1619(b), you must:

  • Have been eligible for an SSI cash payment for at least 1 month;
  • Need Medi-Cal coverage to keep working;
  • Still meet all the other SSI requirements, such as low unearned income, low spouse income, and so on;
  • Still have resources below the SSI limit of $2,000 ($3,000 for a couple); and
  • Have less than $37,706 in gross wages. Note: If you have medical expenses higher than the state average, this figure may be higher.

Medi-Cal coverage under 1619(b) continues with no premium.

Read more about Medi-Cal, including 1619(b), in the DB101 article on Medi-Cal.

California’s Working Disabled Program

If you are working, disabled, and your income is too high to qualify for 1619(b) and free Medi-Cal, the Working Disabled Program (WDP) may allow you to get Medi-Cal by paying a small monthly premium. To qualify, you must:

  1. Meet the medical requirements of Social Security’s definition of disability. You don't have to meet the income and work requirements.
  2. Be working and earning income. The Medi-Cal regulations do not define what “working” means for this program, and you can qualify if you are working part time. You can use pay-stubs or other written verification from an employer to prove that you’re working.
  3. Have assets worth less than $2,000 for an individual ($3,000 for a couple). For this program:
    • Retirement funds like 401(k)’s are not counted as assets.
    • Any money that you earn from your work while you are on the program will not be counted as assets, as long as you put that money into a separate bank account.
  4. Have countable income less than $2,602 for individuals and $3,523 for couples.
    • Disability income does not count for the WDP program. This means that SSDI, Worker’s Compensation, California State Disability Insurance, and any federal, state, or private disability benefits are not considered as income for this program.
    • Your gross income can be much higher than your countable income. For example, an individual with no unearned income or IRWEs can make up to $63,492 a year in gross income and still be eligible for this program.
  5. Have countable unearned income less than the appropriate SSI maximum benefit rate for a persona in your situation.

The premium you pay depends on your countable income and family situation. It can range from $20 to $250 for an individual, or $30 to $375 for couples. Use the Medi-Cal for the Working Disabled Calculator to get an idea of whether you'd qualify for this program and what your premium would be.

Read more about Medi-Cal, including the Working Disabled Program, in the DB101 article on Medi-Cal.

A Safety Net When Work Ends: Expedited Reinstatement (EXR)

Let’s say you were getting SSI benefits, but you’ve gotten a job and are making enough money that you’re no longer eligible for benefits. Then something goes wrong and you lose your job. Don’t worry. You don’t have to start at the beginning and reapply for SSI benefits. If you’re still eligible, and less than 5 years have passed, you may be able to request Expedited Reinstatement (EXR).

You can request EXR if:

  • Your SSI benefits amount went to zero because of any combination of earned and unearned income;
  • You can’t work at the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level because of your disability;
  • Your current medical impairment is the same as the one that originally made you eligible for SSI; and
  • Your benefits amount has been stopped for less than 5 years.

If you get EXR, you can get up to 6 months of temporary SSI benefits while Social Security looks at your medical records.

Knowing that EXR is available takes away some of the worry you might have about going to work. If your disability keeps you from working after all, you can always go back on SSI benefits.