Still Working but Suffering with a Disability? Advice for the “Working Wounded”

Sometimes Americans come to seek social security disability due to a sudden health crisis such a a disabling auto accident, a heart attack or a work injury.  But more often Americans who come to file for social security disability have been working and struggling with a chronic health condition for some time.

Everyone that has to leave work and file for social security disability faces perhaps the most stressful and difficult time of their lives – but the “working wounded” face additional stress.

  • When is the right time to file for social security disability?
  • How do I handle my job?

As a social security disability lawyer in Dallas Fort Worth since 1991 I have talked to many who are barely hanging on to their jobs.   After they describe their concerns and problems, they often end with a simple sentence:

“I just don’t know what to do”

When we are faced with a difficult situation, our tendency as human beings it to think that everything involved in that situation is difficult.   But I would like to suggest to you that if you are still working but think social security may be an inevitable part of your future you do face painful changes, but difficult decisions?  Not so much – your health and circumstances are going to make them for you.

Difficult Decisions About Social Security Disability

We often talk about having “difficult decisions”.  I recently faced one in putting my 15 year old Dachshund Rolo to sleep.  While he did not seem to be in visible discomfort, he had lost 15% of his body weight in the last year – though he continued to eat well.  More often than not I would have to carry him outside to use the bathroom.

Rolo was a great dog.  Putting him to sleep was a “difficult decision” not because I faced different options that were difficult to assess – not because it was unclear what the right course of action was.  It was difficult because it was painful.  But it was not difficult in the sense of having any options.  The course of nature – Rolo’s advancing age and limitations – determined what the right decision was.

I would submit that the “working wounded” similarly face “difficult decisions” regarding work and social security disability.  They are painful – but more often than not there are factors you cannot control that will dictate what course of action you take.

When is It Time To File for Social Security Disability?

  • When you are no longer working

The social security administration will not accept a claim for social security disability benefits as long as you are working.

  • When you cannot see any work you could do in the immediate future

In order to qualify for social security disability insurance benefits, you must be unable to do any work at all, and that inability to work must last or be expected to last at least 12 months.  Your inability to do your present work is only half the battle: you must also prove you cannot do any work at all.

While it is true that social security regulations are more forgiving as to proving inability to do “other work” for people over 50 years of age, you must carefully look at whether you could do easier, or less demanding work.  It does not matter that such “other work” does not pay as well as your prior work.

What should I do about my job?

  • Work until you have no choice

Sounds simplistic, but it really is that simple.  Occasionally, someone will call me who is still working, and they will be unhappy to hear that they cannot file a claim for social security disability if they are working.

“I’ve got no choice – I have to work, I have bills to pay”

I understand and I do feel for those suffering in a job but who are without the resources to stop working.  But the reality is they do still have a choice to work, and they apparently are still performing their job well enough to avoid dismissal.

But having no choice other than to stop working does not have anything to do with money.  It has to do with your health and ability to work.

I still remember a former client once saying this to me about how he left his job:

“I simply could not work anymore.  I told my wife, we may end up living under a bridge, but I have to quit”

This man had no choice other than to leave his job.  A painful decision, but not a decision in which he had other options.  (He did not end up “under a bridge”, by the way).

It is also important to know that working as long as you can gives you the chance to build up savings and resources for when you have no choice in working – money you will need during the long wait for social security disability benefits.

Getting Fired for Job Performance Problems Caused by Your Disability is a Good Thing

Many “working wounded” worry about being fired.  No one wants to do fired.  Its humiliating.  We instinctively believe it cannot be good for our future, and perhaps that a future Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who reviews our disability claim will look unkindly on this fact.

But if you are fired because your disability has eroded your ability to do the job, a future ALJ will likely see this as evidence that you are unable to perform your prior job: a key step to winning your disability claim.

  • Take Long-Term Disability if Available

Many large employers provide short-term disability (STD) and long-term disability benefits (LTD) and the “working wounded” should immediately learn the details of these if available.  Typically, LTD is not available until STD has been exhausted.

The key feature of STD and LTD benefits is that they must be supported by a treating doctor.  So if you have STD and LTD, ask your doctor if she would support you.  If so, this is a good way to exit your job and still receive a check.  LTD benefits are typically 60% of your prior salary.


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