If you were let go or laid off from your job, it's natural to start collecting unemployment benefits, even if you were having trouble working full-time due to health issues. But you know unemployment benefits won't last forever. If you don't think you'll be able to go back to work at a new job, you're might be wondering if you can apply for Social Security disability benefits.
Officially, the Social Security Administration (SSA) says that collecting unemployment benefits, on its own, doesn't prevent you from being approved for disability benefits. But collecting unemployment benefits is a factor that administrative law judges (ALJs) can consider when they're deciding your disability case.
It can be a problem to collect unemployment benefits while you're applying for Social Security disability benefits because, when you file for unemployment benefits, you are saying you are willing and able to work, but when you apply for disability benefits, you are saying that you can't work, for at least a year.
Disability claims examiners and judges usually know when you're collecting unemployment benefits because Social Security has access to unemployment benefits information. If you're collecting unemployment, the SSA will usually include that information in your claims file.
Not all disability judges will deny you benefits because of it; judges fall into four categories.
In a few states, including Texas and Georgia, you can only apply for unemployment benefits if you're ready and willing to work full-time.
But in many states, you can collect unemployment benefits even if you're only looking for part-time work. In these states, when you apply for unemployment benefits, you're not necessarily telling the employment department that you're available to work full-time.
And applicants for Social Security disability aren't necessarily saying that they can't do part-time work—only that they can't do full-time work. (In fact, disability applicants are allowed to work a limited amount of time.) So, depending on your state, you might not be saying conflicting things by trying to collect unemployment and Social Security benefits at the same time.
If you've collected unemployment benefits and you attend an appeal hearing, the judge may try to find out why you're collecting unemployment benefits, or why you collected them until recently.
The disability judge may ask what jobs you applied for while you were collecting unemployment (and will be checking if they were similar to your old job). If the jobs you applied for were ones that you've said you aren't capable of doing (for instance, a job requiring heavy lifting), you may have a problem. If you're in this situation, you may want to offer to change your alleged onset date to a date after you stopped collecting unemployment benefits.
Similarly, if you applied for a full-time desk job while you were collecting unemployment but you're now telling the judge you can't sustain any full-time work, the judge might doubt your credibility. You could argue that you probably wouldn't have been able to sustain full-time work for more than a few weeks without great pain or other symptoms, or without getting fired due to low productivity or absenteeism (caused by your disability). Depending on the judge, your explanation might be acceptable.
Keep in mind that federal judges have stated in the past that:
"A desire to work does not mean that a claimant can actually work," and
"Receipt of unemployment insurance benefits does not prove the ability to work."
If the disability judge asks you what jobs you applied for while you were collecting unemployment benefits, you might have a valid argument that collecting unemployment benefits and disability benefits at the same time didn't create a conflict, in your situation.
Here are some examples of successful explanations:
(Note though, that some states don't pay unemployment benefits to those who say they can only do sedentary work, because they aren't available for a significant percentage of jobs out there.)
To be safe, some disability applicants will wait until their unemployment benefits run out to apply for disability benefits. Others will change the date they became disabled (their "alleged onset date") until after their unemployment benefits have stopped. (But note that, by doing this, you could be giving up a large sum of money.)
It's usually best to talk about your circumstances with a disability lawyer before deciding to amend your disability onset date or deciding when to apply for benefits.
And if you have a hearing coming up, and you applied for full-time jobs while you were collecting unemployment, or you applied for jobs that were more demanding than your physical and mental limitations allow for, it's best to talk about this with a disability lawyer. A good lawyer or disability advocate can explain the issues in-depth and advise you on the best course of action.
For a discussion of the reverse situation—can you collect unemployment while on Social Security disability—see our article on applying for unemployment when you're disabled.
Updated June 30, 2022