It’s not uncommon for workers to expect to qualify for disability when they are unable to work in a job that they have held for years. The question becomes does that mean they are disabled under Social Security Administration rules? As in most cases in dealing with the law, the answer is maybe!
For workers under the age of 50, applicants must prove that they are also unable to obtain any work in the general economy, even if they can’t do their typical jobs. This includes unskilled work, and the SSA makes no distinction for what type of pay cut a worker must accept to remain gainfully employed. For instance, let’s assume a worker was earning $20 an hour as an electrician, but could no longer handle the rigors of that employment. If that person can do a minimum-wage job full time or at the level of substantial gainful employment as set by the SSA, then a person is not considered disabled under the SSA rules. Many people are surprised that the SSA would require this. Even if jobs don’t exist within the current labor market, the SSA would require a worker to move herself to a larger market to continue to be employed.
For individuals over the age of 50, the primary question is did they acquire skills from prior employment that would enable them to transition into other employment areas. If those skills would allow the worker to transition to alternate employment, then they are not considered disabled. If those skills are too specialized and don’t easily transition to alternate employment, the worker may very may well be disabled, according to SSA rules.
I hear this question on a regular basis from my workers’ compensation clients. In my experience, the answer is almost always “no.” But if you do find alternate or part-time employment during your workers’ compensation case, you need to keep track of and disclose your earnings.
Why working when you are injured can help your case:
Working helps your credibility with doctors and judges:
Doctors and judges are the two most important people in your case, because the doctors drive the medical evidence and the judge weighs that evidence. Ultimately, those decisions come down to a doctor or judge’s determination of your character. A judge is going to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who is trying to help themselves. That’s also why complying with doctor’s orders and rehabilitation programs helps your credibility in court.
Just because you’re working doesn’t mean that you are not significantly or even totally disabled:
Maybe your company is bending over backward to keep you. Maybe a sibling or a parent has you working at their business. In situations like that, a court is going to understand you are earning wages beyond your real potential to earn wages. You may also be enduring tremendous amounts of pain to maintain employment. In cases like that, especially if you had a good employment record and complied with your doctor’s orders, the fact that you are working through pain could very well help your credibility.
How to hurt your case when you work:
Not disclosing your wages and employment:
This is especially true if you are working while receiving temporary disability benefits or unemployment benefits. This makes you look dishonest, and you might be committing fraud in many states. Additionally, once you are in the legal process, you normally have a duty to disclose that information to your employer/insurer anyway. Even if a judge believes that you inadvertently forgot to turn over this wage information, you are still making it more difficult for your attorney to win you benefits.
Clearly working beyond your medical restrictions:
Let’s say a doctor takes you off work as a nurse because you can’t lift more than 25 pounds and bend and twist on a regular basis, but you keep working as a CrossFit instructor, where you regularly do heavy lifting that involves bending and twisting. If you are that person, don’t call our law firm. Though employee fraud is a very small percentage of overall fraud, conduct like that would likely be workers’ compensation fraud. Again, working can help with your credibility in a workers’ compensation case, but being dishonest about that work can hurt your case.