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2024 has brought us a lot of things, including an astronomical increase in the cost of consumer goods (like food, rent, and gasoline). This has affected almost every part of our population, and those living in the Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi Coast are not excluded. Mr. Heermans, of Heermans Social Security Disability Law Firm, says, “We have all seen the rise in sticker prices, and sometimes it can be impossible for those with a disability, to work extra hours and make up the difference with a paycheck”. 

Mr. Heermans goes on to say, “It is important for those with a physical or mental disability to understand how their ability to be employed and earn a paycheck can potentially impact their ability to qualify for social security disability benefits. This area of employability and earning of income in an adult’s application, or denied application, of Social Security Disability Benefits is called Substantial Gainful Activity.”

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Usually, substantial gainful activity, or SGA, is any employment that requires a reasonably high level of mental and/or physical activity. Additionally, in most cases, the SGA must be a job that pays enough to lift the disabled applicant, and any of the applicant’s dependents, above the SGA Poverty Level

The inability to perform SGA is an essential part of a disability application. Before the SSA considers a petition, applicants must show that they haven’t earned above SGA for at least twelve months. As of January 1, 2024, the SGA Poverty Level for a single person is $1,550 per month ($2,590 per month for blind individuals).

However, SGA is just one piece of the disability puzzle. The SSI lawyers near you at Heermans Social Security Disability Law Firm put all these pieces together to help you obtain life-changing financial benefits for you and your family. These benefits usually include monthly cash and, perhaps more importantly for disabled individuals, free (or almost free) health care at many medical care facilities in Mississippi. 

SGA Nuts and Bolts

Typically, SGA is work that is performed for profit or pay, generally performed for profit or pay, and work intended for profit. This may seem like an overkill way to describe “work”, but you will see as we further explore this topic, that the details are many and can be complicated. This is why it is so important to have a Heermans attorney representing you as you apply for SSDI disability benefits

W-2 employment is the most obvious example of work performed for profit or pay. Most freelancing and self-employment gigs meet this standard as well. Things get muddy if the applicant worked partially for money and partially for altruistic reasons. For example, Ben might write a screenplay for a Christian movie partially to get paid and partially to tell a story. A Social Security Disability attorney near me could argue that the screenplay wasn’t work performed “for” profit or pay. The money was a side benefit.

However, the SSA might still consider the screenplay work under the next definition. People normally write screenplays for profit. The same conclusion could apply if Juan volunteered for 10 hours per week at his son’s company answering the telephone and doing odd jobs. Even though Juan wasn’t paid for his volunteer work, the SSA concluded that the type of work he performed was usually compensated. Therefore, the SSA would count it as employable work, instead of non-paying volunteer activity. 

Work intended for profit usually means work that was done but the client, employer, or other paying party stiffed (did not pay) the worker. Unfortunately, “intended for profit” cannot be used as a loophole in a disability application. A Heermans disability lawyer near me, has extensive experience with all types of volunteerism, work, and work experience and understands how it applies to the SSI disability application and acceptance process. 

Volunteer Work and SGA

The “I was just a volunteer” loophole is not always clearly understood. This question comes up in some other contexts as well, such as the difference between an unpaid intern (who’s exempt from wage-hours laws) and an entry-level employee (who’s protected by these laws). According to the SSA, volunteer work is SGA if the applicant:

  • Did volunteer work for a family-owned business,
  • Volunteered for more than five or six hours a week,
  • Exerted considerable mental and/or physical energy, as mentioned above, and
  • Would have received SGA wages if s/he was paid.

This test is subjective. Most volunteer jobs don’t check all of these boxes. A volunteer school crossing guard job at a local private school is a good example.

During the school year, crossing guards might work fifteen or twenty hours a week, if they do the morning and afternoon shift. Furthermore, the theoretical wages could approach SGA levels. However, more than likely, the school is not a family-owned business, Furthermore, crossing guard is not a demanding position, physically or mentally. 

Because the standard is so subjective, a disability lawyer near me can advise an applicant on the exclusion rules. Exclusion rules make it possible for an applicant to do most volunteer work, making it easier for them to be involved with their community in a volunteer capacity and yet, still be under the SGA threshold.

Key SGA Exceptions

The SSA only has a handful of rules that define SGA and flesh out this concept in real terms. The SGA exceptions far outweigh the SGA rules. If activity fits an exception, the aforementioned profit/not for profit discussion is irrelevant. The activity is not considered SGA, regardless of the number of hours or anything else. 

Everyday Activities

Butlers, maids, cooks, and other individuals clearly work for profit. Their jobs, even if unpaid, could certainly pad a resume and help you look your best at a job interview. However, as a matter of law, the activities listed below are not SGA. This list includes:

  • Personal hygiene (dressing, showering, etc.),
  • Physical therapy,
  • Household chores (laundry, dishes, etc.),
  • Social activities involvements (church groups, book clubs, etc,) and
  • Running errands (driving to school, driving to work, etc.).

Although the SSA doesn’t consider these activities to be SGA for the purposes of determining your initial eligibility for disability benefits, the agency may still consider them as evidence of your functional limitations. Your limitations are also an important component of your residual functional capacity, a set of restrictions that the SSA uses to determine whether you’re disabled. But that’s the subject we will explore further in a separate article.

Income Exclusions

Usually, a significant proportion of an applicant’s monthly income doesn’t count toward the SGA threshold, once again regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Some prominent income exclusions include:

  • Earned income under $65,
  • One-half of the earned income over $65, and
  • Earned income allotted to a plan for achieving self-support (PASS) program.

These income exclusions only apply in limited situations, mostly if the applicant receives SSI benefits, which is a needs-based disability program for children and people with a low income and few assets.

Impairment-Related Work Expenses 

IRWEs are costs incurred for special services or equipment related to your disability and necessary for you to work. If you have paid IRWEs, the SSA may deduct these costs from your earnings. This deduction, which is more widely available than the IE deduction, helps keep your income under the SGA level. Examples of items that the SSA may consider to be IRWEs include:

  • Specialized transportation costs (e.g., paratransit),
  • Personal assistant expenses,
  • Helper expenses at work (the cost of hiring a non-impaired person to do a part of your job you can’t do because of your disability), and
  • Specialized training costs (e.g., learning how to use a page turner or other typing device.)

These expenses must be unreimbursed expenses. You also can’t get IRWE deductions for payments that were needed for services on behalf of other people, such as childcare. Costs for IRWEs must also be paid in cash, not by barter.

Subsidized Employment

Some employers pay disabled workers more than the market value of their labor in order to help them overcome employment barriers and gain experience in the workforce. Any amount you’re paid over the reasonable value for your services is considered a “subsidy.”

The SSA won’t include the amount of the subsidy when determining whether your work is SGA. The agency uses multiple factors to determine whether earnings include a subsidy and to calculate the approximate value of the subsidy. Usually, a disability lawyer partners with a vocational expert who examines the market and sets the fair market value for services rendered.

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If you would like to know if you qualify for Social Security Disability benefits or have been denied benefits, the Heermans Law Firm would like to provide you with a FREE Disability Evaluation. For more information about SSD benefits, contact the nationally recognized Gulfport, Mississippi disability lawyers at the Heermans Social Security Disability Law Firm call or text 24/7 at (228) 207-0766. More value added FREE information can be found in our online article library.

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