Q. I am 55 years old and have had the same job for about 35 years. I was laid off about six months ago. I have tried looking for other work, but so far I have been unsuccessful. I suppose I could find work at low-end entry-level jobs. But I’d really like something similar to my old job and one that offers similar pay and benefits. However, my job search is hindered by the fact that I’ve had severe back pain for many years. I always worked in spite of this pain. My wife and family say that I should file for Social Security disability benefits. So far, I’ve been reluctant. What chance do you think I would have of qualifying for disability?
A. Well, I can tell you that you will have zero chance if you never file! In other words, it certainly doesn’t hurt to apply for disability benefits. What’s to lose? At the most, maybe just a couple of hours of your time.
But here is the key thing you need to understand about Social Security disability law: You don’t qualify for benefits because you have a disability. You qualify for benefits if you have a disability that keeps you from working. The inability to work is the deciding factor. There are millions of people who have “disabilities” — everything from blindness to heart trouble to cancer — but they are still working. Because of that, they don’t qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
Specifically, the law says that to get disability, you must have an impairment that is so severe that it is expected to keep you from working for at least a year, or a disability that is terminal.
My hunch is if you were offered a job tomorrow, especially one that paid you as much as your old job did, you’d take it. In other words, Social Security law possibly might consider you more “unemployed” than “disabled.”
But having said that, I come back to my original response: It certainly doesn’t hurt to file for such benefits. Tens of thousands of folks in your shoes do so every month.
Applying for Social Security disability involves filling out a bunch of forms. You can do so online at www.socialsecurity.gov, or you can call 800-772-1213 and apply over the phone. You will also be given the option of filing in person at your local Social Security Administration office.
You will be asked to provide names of doctors and others who have treated you. SSA will contact those medical sources to get your records. There is a pretty good chance you will be asked to see a “Social Security doctor” at the government’s expense. Then you will wait two or three months for the agency’s decision. If it’s yes, the checks start rolling in. (The amount would essentially be your age 66 retirement benefit.) If it’s no, you can either appeal or continue looking for work and accept the fact that, at least according to Social Security law, you are unemployed and not disabled.