• Justin S. Raines

What is an unsuccessful work attempt?


When a person applies for disability benefits, the first question in the five-step sequential analysis asks whether the person is performing substantial gainful activity (SGA). SGA is an earnings threshold, above which a person cannot get disability benefits. In other words, if a disability claimant is earning SGA or above, the disability case will be denied.


But what if a person can work only for a relatively short period of time and must stop working because of the person’s severe physical or mental impairments? Or what if the person is only able to work because of special conditions that the employer provides and must stop working because those special conditions were removed? Is it fair to deny either person disability benefits?


Social Security Administration (SSA) policy acknowledges that it would not be fair to deny a person disability benefits in such circumstances. For this reason, the SSA has created special rules for considering such “unsuccessful work attempts” (UWA). If a person’s attempt to work meets the UWA rules, the person will not be denied, even if the person made SGA.


UWA are different than another exception to the SGA rule, the trial work period (TWP). TWPs will be discussed in a future post.


It’s easier to prove an UWA that is three months or less than it is to prove one that is three-to-six months long. Unfortunately, six months is the longest a claimant can work at the SGA level and still have the work qualify as an UWA.


Social Security Ruling (SSR) 84-25 and SSA regulations outline the exact requirements for UWAs. They also define what qualifies as special working conditions, which are specially designed to accommodate a person’s severe physical and mental impairments. Some examples of special working conditions, taken from SSR 84-25, are as follows:

a. Required and received special assistance from other employees in performing the job; or

b. Was allowed to work irregular hours or take frequent rest periods.


According to SSR 84-25, additional evidence, other than a claimant’s own testimony, is needed to prove an unsuccessful work attempt. This can be in the form of an employer’s statement, an employer questionnaire, a claimant’s medical records, or a claimant’s physician.


If you have a severe physical or mental illness or injury and believe that your work qualifies as an UWA, you should consult with an attorney experienced in Social Security disability for advice and help developing the employmeny evidence needed to prove your case.

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