Social security disability (SSD) is a federal program that provides monthly benefits to individuals unable to work due to a medical condition or disability. However, initial approval rates are low – in 2020, only 39% of people were approved for benefits at the application stage. Approval rates increase on appeal, with 42% of Illinois applicants who appealed a denial to an administrative law judge ultimately being awarded benefits. (The overall approval rating for SSD benefits in Illinois is 49.6%).
However, the wait times between application and award of SSD benefits can be lengthy. On average, it takes five months to get a decision following submission of the initial application. If you appeal, you’ll wait even longer – an average of 14.5 months in Illinois to get a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). And that doesn’t factor in the wait time to get a decision on reconsideration, the first phase of the appeal process and which you must go through before requesting an administrative hearing. That means it could take almost two years before your SSD application is approved and you begin receiving benefits.
The low initial approval rates combined with the lengthy wait times mean that many people who are unable to work apply for unemployment benefits to bridge the gap. While it is possible to obtain SSD benefits while receiving unemployment, some issues could complicate the process.
Unemployment benefits provide a source of income to individuals who have lost their job. Assuming you qualify, benefits typically begin two to three weeks after applying. Benefits continue for an average of six months, although it is sometimes possible to get extended benefits, such as what happened during COVID. Many states also pay unemployment benefits for part-time workers who lose their job, although at a reduced rate.
However, receipt of unemployment benefits is conditioned on you being committed to actively searching for full-time work. That contradicts one of the key requirements of SSD benefits, which is that you have a medical condition or disability that makes you unable to work for at least 12 months.
Social Security Disability Benefits
Social Security Disability provides monthly benefits to people who are unable to work due to a disability or medical condition. The disability must have lasted, or be expected to last, at least 12 months, and must interfere with your ability to engage in substantial gainful activity, or SGA. The amount that the Social Security Administration considers SGA changes annually, but in 2022, you can earn no more than $1,350 per month ($2,260 for individuals who are statutorily blind) to be eligible for SSD benefits.
The SSA doesn’t count unemployment benefits as income when determining whether you meet the SGA threshold, so they won’t negatively affect your SSD application in that regard. However, there is still the issue of the simultaneous, seemingly contradictory claims that you’re fit and able to work full-time (unemployment benefits) yet have a medical condition or disability that prevents you from working for 12 months or longer (Social Security Disability benefits).
Qualifying for both Unemployment and Social Security Disability Benefits
The SSA states that receipt of unemployment benefits does not automatically prevent someone from also receiving SSD benefits. Whether you qualify for both comes down to whether you meet the eligibility requirements for both programs, which is difficult, though not impossible.
For example, assume you worked full-time and were then laid off. You apply for and are awarded unemployment benefits. You then become disabled and, due to the limitations imposed by that disability, are unable to return to full-time work and apply for SSD benefits. This is an apparent contradiction – by receiving unemployment benefits, you are indicating an ability and willingness to return to work, but by applying for disability, you are claiming that your disability prevents you from working full-time.
Yet receiving SSD benefits doesn’t mean you can’t work. It just means that you cannot earn more than the monthly SGA amount. If you can prove that the jobs you can do despite your disability would pay less than SGA, you could be eligible to receive both unemployment and SSD benefits.
Another example is if you could return to full-time work with accommodations. Many people with disabilities can work full-time, provided their employer provides them with accommodations that permit them to do their job. For example, larger computer screens for people with vision issues or frequent breaks for people who need to elevate their legs to alleviate pain or swelling. If you can prove that you would return to full-time work, but for the fact that you require accommodations that the jobs you’ve been applying for have been unable to provide, you would remain eligible for both unemployment and SSD benefits.
If you appeal an initial denial of SSD benefits to an administrative law judge, they can consider the fact that you receive unemployment benefits when deciding whether you are eligible for SSD benefits. Whether or not the ALJ counts that against you depends entirely on the judge and, to some extent, the circumstances of your case. If the ALJ is inclined to disallow your SSD claim because you already receive unemployment, one option is to change your disability onset date to one after the unemployment benefits end. That would eliminate the contradiction of claiming you are both able and unable to return to work.
Applying for SSD benefits while receiving unemployment is possible, though it can be complicated. Beyond making sure that you meet the eligibility criteria for both programs, how your case is presented can play a role in whether your SSD application is approved. An experienced social security disability attorney can help you determine whether you’re eligible for both programs and help with your SSD case.
The social security disability attorneys at The Good Law Group have more than 30 years of experience handling social security disability cases. We offer free case consultations and, if we accept your case, you don’t pay unless you are awarded benefits. Call us at 847-577-4476 to schedule an appointment.