The great misperception of Social Security Disability is that people become unable to work suddenly because they are injured in a work-related, automobile or other catastrophic accident. The reality is many claimants spend years working after they have been diagnosed with diabetes, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal or other chronic, progressive illnesses. These individuals work through ever-increasing pain and illness, with corresponding decreases in earnings, often for many years. Workers’ efforts to avoid disability become obvious when we look at their earnings’ records in the two- to five-years prior to the day they tell Social Security they first became unable to work.
A study performed by Jackson Costa with the Office of Program Development; Office of Research, Demonstration, and Employment Support; Office of Retirement and Disability Policy of the Social Security Administration, showed SSD applicants’ earnings’ records remained steady for years, dropping off in the years before work ended. The period of the decline depended on the nature of the impairment and the age of the claimant, among other factors.
Impairments commonly seen after a car accident or workplace injury did correlate with an immediate drop off or end of earnings. However, common progressive illnesses and impairments, for example, Type 2 Diabetes and its related complications such as, knee problems, muskuloskeletal problems or gastrointestinal disease, showed a decline period closer to five years. For mental health impairments the decline happened more quickly, hovering around the two year mark.
This is no surprise to those of us practicing Social Security Disability Law. Frequently, our clients dealing with physical impairments have tried part time work, had short periods of time off work, requested accommodations from their employers, or have taken less strenuous, lower-paying positions to attempt to continue working with their illnesses or injuries. These efforts are reflected in continued earnings, but earnings at a level much lower than the worker’s previous earnings.
The report also found that older workers, for example those ages 50-55 showed a mean decline period of almost two years longer than those in the 26- to 29- year age group, the youngest group for which there is data. Since it would be expected that workers in the 26- to 29-year group would not be dealing with progressive illnesses like arthritis or Type 2 Diabetes, it makes sense the decline period would be shorter, as it is more likely the impairments have been caused by trauma such as a work injury or accident.
By looking at these trends, the author of the report hopes to offer recommendations for the Social Security Administration and other agencies to help workers who are ill or injured by establishing accommodations that could keep them working and earning sufficient income to meet basic needs. As the results of this study show, in spite of declining health, the majority of workers choose to continue working as long as they can.