Can I Qualify for Disability Benefits if I Can Work Part Time?

Question: My degenerative disc problems and stenosis became so bad that I was forced to quit my job as a vocational nurse—I could no longer be on my feet all day or physically assist heavier patients. I had been working three 12-hour days per week for the past ten years. I am 49. Can Social Security say that I can work fewer hours and deny me benefits?

Answer: Applicants for Social Security disability should be able to get benefits if they can’t work on a “regular and sustained basis.” Generally, this means full time; for Social Security to deny you benefits, you need to be able to work 40 hours per week without needing to take frequent breaks. In most cases, Social Security won’t deny you benefits because you could work, say, 15 or 20 hours per week.

The rule is a bit different if you worked part-time in the years before you quit due to your impairments. In that case, if Social Security says that you can still do your past part-time job, you can’t get benefits, even if Social Security would agree you couldn’t work a 40-hour week. So in your case, if Social Security decides you can work 36 hours per week, you’ll be denied benefits even if you clearly couldn’t work 40 hours per week. (To learn more about this issue, see our article on disability benefits and full-time work vs. past-time work.)

What if Social Security agrees you can’t work your past job that required three 12-hour shifts per week? (By the way, this probably won’t be difficult to prove — that schedule would be physically grueling for most people; nearly impossible for someone with your physical impairments.) But before approving you for disability benefits, Social Security would look to see whether there are other jobs you could with easier schedules (for instance, five 7-hour days) – or other 36-hours-a-week jobs that require less physical work and more sitting down. Whether Social Security would find that there are other jobs you could do depends on what your residual functional capacity (RFC) is.

One more issue—because you’re not yet 50, Social Security will assume there are other types of jobs that someone your age can learn to do (unless you were given a “less-than-sedentary” RFC, which is not common). For example, say you can’t find a nursing job with lighter duties or a less taxing schedule, Social Security will argue that there are many sit-down jobs you can do.

But once you turn 50, this changes. Then Social Security will use the “grids” to decide whether you should be expected to learn a new line of work. First, Social Security will assess whether you have skills you can transfer to another type of job. If not, Social Security may not expect you to be able to “adjust” to new work, depending whether Social Security gave you an RFC for sedentary work or light work. For more information on this issue, see our article on the disability grids.