ragged edge magazine online

ABOUT US   |   SUBSCRIBE    |   E-MAIL EDITOR   |   HOME      

from the


"Truly, the Social Security Administration is an absurdity that only black humor can make palatable," writes T. G. Read letters.


  A White-Collar Crime
Why can't the government improve the disability work rules to allow professionals to ply our trades while receiving disability benefits?

By Eugene Sanders

A DECADE AGO I HAD a very promising career as a library manager. That ended when I had a nervous breakdown. I was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

After recovering sufficiently through therapy and medication, I was given permission from my doctors to work part-time and was also given a Social Security Disability, or SSDI, pension.

Always in the back of my mind was the plan to get well enough to work as a full-time professional again. But I had to be realistic and face the fact that if I didn't want to have another breakdown, I'd have to take it easy.

This meant working at a part-time job, preferably one that was in a field I had some familiarity with or involved something that interested me. I'm not a snob when it comes to doing a job. As long as I'm usually paid for it and it's honest, I'm okay with it.

However, I yearned to rebuild my career. I often wondered how self-conscious I'd feel meeting people I knew and telling them I was working as a janitor or landscape worker.

It's difficult to find a part-time job that lets you work as a professional or paraprofessional for the limited amount of money you're allowed to earn on SSDI. But you need such a job if you're ever going to get off "disability." So what's the answer?

With the development of the new antipsychotic drugs, I was feeling more like engaging in useful activity, interacting with people, and acting much less lethargic, not to mention that my symptoms were much more manageable. Therefore, I decided not to rule out work that was paraprofessional or entry-level professional on a part-time basis.

I knew that, despite antidiscrimination laws, potential employers would look at me as a possibly risky person to hire because of my mental illness. There was also the restriction on my taking a job while on Social Security Disability benefits. At the time, I couldn't earn more than $500 a month. The consequence of ignoring the restriction was to lose my entire disability pension for each month I worked over the limit.

My chances of getting anything mentally stimulating were slim under these constraints.

Luckily, I was involved with a program that helped disabled people back into the workforce. The therapist they introduced me to also worked as the therapist for a Catholic seminary with a large library. I was Jewish, so the therapist asked me if working at a Catholic institution bothered me. When I told him it didn't, he got me a volunteer position helping shelve books and doing various clerical projects.

The library director, in his 70s, seemingly gruff but kindly, soon hired me part-time at the $500 per month Social Security Disability maximum, and over the course of five years gave me progressively more advanced work to do. Soon I was handling interlibrary loans and cataloging on the OCLC computer system.

Things were going well, and it looked like I had fulfilled my objective of finding a paraprofessional job that was mentally stimulating and allowed me to work under Social Security Disability's rules.

But then the seminary got a new director. He and I got along well enough at first, but soon he began decreasing the professional aspects of my job and increasing the book shelving. He would also gather the staff together and at times ask us to pray to Jesus, which, being Jewish, I found impossible to do.

I was soon dismissed.. They were financially unable to keep me on, they said. I believed it was because I would not convert to Catholicism. In any case, I lost my job, though I did get severance pay and good recommendations for five years of work. I'll never know whether my mental illness played a factor in losing this job.

My next job was with an educational testing company where I'd worked before my illness. They paid a higher wage than the seminary: the work was full-time but temporary. It was a good in-between job.. By this time the Social Security limits had been raised -- now the limit was a little over $700 a month.

When I reached my limit, I had to resign from the project. This got a note put into my personnel file, saying that while I did good work, I'd left the project early -- and that before I was given future jobs I should be asked if I could complete them.

The company did continue to hire me, but only for projects I could complete before having to resign due to having earned up to the amount I was allowed to earn before I lost my SSDI benefits.

I was offered a job part-time teaching freshman English composition at a university. A great job!

Though my psychiatrist and psychologist had their doubts as to whether a paranoid schizophrenic would be able to handle a job involving that much public contact, I felt could have done it, and so did the woman who wanted to hire me. (She knew I had a mental disability. She just didn't know it was schizophrenia.)

But none of that mattered. It paid $200 a month over the now-maximum $800 a month limit I could earn. Had I accepted the job, I would have forfeited my pension for each month I worked over the amount.

TODAY SOCIAL SECURITY ALLOWS YOU to keep your Medicare coverage for 8 1/2 years after you go back to work. However, under the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act, you are still subject to getting your benefits cut when you exceed the limit of substantial earnings, currently $800 per month.

Social Security's PASS program, or Plan for Achieving Self Support, allows you to use your income and/or other things you own to set aside money to go to school, get specialized training for a job or start a business. In my case I already had the training necessary to start a job, so the program doesn't help me.

If the SSDI program ever raises its limit on earnings to allow a professional to work for a realistic part-time wage, I will try teaching again in a shot! As it stands now, the most I can make is $10 an hour at 20 hours per week with some weeks off over the year without pay, so that I don't go over the $800-per-month limit.

It's difficult to find a part-time job that lets you work as a professional or paraprofessional for under $800 a month. Most employers expect professionals to give 100 percent, even if they are working part-time. And though most companies today are careful not to openly discriminate against someone with mental illness, knowing it's illegal, the stigma factor is still there. I've found it in job interviews and in my own work experience. My SSDI counselor agrees that it's still present -- just very difficult to prove.

Social Security's Disability work restrictions make it difficult for a prospective job-seeker to offer an employer the quantity and quality of work they want out of a professional worker. New antipsychotic drugs are giving many of us a better quality of life, but not yet a completely normal life. The Social Security Administration should take these into effect in its determination of "gainful work activity" -- which should also include current data on realistic salaries disabled professionals can make.

I haven't yet even bothered to apply to libraries offering part-time entry-level professional jobs. Even in this low-paying profession, salaries are much higher than Social Security Disability allows you to make. It's hard enough for me to compete against nondisabled professionals without having the additional restriction of having to work for a lower salary added against me. The legal implications of someone needing to work for less are probably more trouble than most reputable employers would care to bother with. Every employer for whom I have offered to work for a lower salary than other applicants has still turned me down on this request.

If I can work successfully as a part-time professional for a few years, the next step is to become a full-time professional and get off "disability." This is my dream. But Social Security will have to increase the maximum earnings level it allows on SSDI if I am to realize it. I can't feed my family on a part-time, entry-level professional's salary in the liberal arts fields.

I'm sure politicians could craft a deal that would allow more of a hand up to disabled professionals and not a hand out. Taxpayers would benefit from the eventually fewer people on disability and a workforce of professionals doing the work they were trained for, rather than the low-level jobs they're now restricted to, which provide so little self-esteem.

Medicine has changed. Why can't the laws change as well?

Posted March 4, 2004

Eugene Sanders is a freelance writer living in San Antonio with his wife and two teenaged sons, waiting for the the company he once worked for to call him back for a part-time job.

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Click to tell us.

Readers respond...

If you think SSDI is bad, think of people who receive only SSI. I am a United States citizen, St. Louis born and bred, and have worked from the time I was sixteen, paying Social Security taxes. I am 51 now. I do not qualify for SSDI since I earned money outside the United States for the past seven years. I am a professor; I won three teaching awards in Germany and paid taxes to the German government. Last year, when my work was over, I had a breakdown and returned to the U.S. Under the rules pertaining to recipients of SSI, if I earn more than $65 a month (which is supposed to cover work-related transportation, meals, etc.), my benefits are taken away from me. For every two dollars I make, I lose one dollar of benefits. Losing my SSI benefits means I will also lose Medicaid benefits, the only health insurance I have.

I receive $564 a month. How can I transition back into my profession under these conditions? I would have to get a full-time teaching job and forget about any transition! Truly, the Social Security Administration is an absurdity that only black humor can make palatable. Work incentives? Bah!

-- T. G., Chicago

Eugene Sanders's story is not unlike mine. I found support from the Senior Community Service Employment Program and, although I was unsucessful in moving to unsubsidized employment in my first work site at the Red Cross, I managed to convince my counselor that I could work, and thus begin a series of jobs in the mental health consumer movement where I was able to keep my earnings below $500.00 a month - which was the maximum allowed by social security. I worked, first as a mental health advocate then as a discharge planner in a mental health treatment center. Then I made the employment change from working with mental health consumers to work in another area of mental health as a development assistant, and eventually became the consumer liaison for the treatment center.

I next became a job developer for a national non profit employment agency that placed persons with diabilities in jobs. After that I was able to become a peer advocate for the county and with my experiences working with the mentally ill, recently I became a shift leader in a consumer-run drop-in center. Now I am a contract recruiter for a national recruiting service. My strategy was to develop transferable skills through participating in community affairs as a volunteer. Job experience and volunteering have paved the way for me to take another step and I am sure I will find a unsubsidized job in the world of work.

-- Ross B. Fortner, Portland, OR

Back to home page

© Copyright 2004 by The Advocado Press

This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works