Can I Apply for Social Security Disability While Collecting Unemployment Benefits?

Collecting unemployment benefits is a factor that judges can consider when they’re deciding your disability case.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

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.

Can You Apply for Disability While on Unemployment?

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.

Will Social Security Know If I'm Collecting Unemployment?

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.

What Do Disability Judges Think About Collecting Unemployment?

Not all disability judges will deny you benefits because of it; judges fall into four categories.

  • Some judges don't like to see that disability applicants are collecting unemployment benefits, no matter what the circumstance.
  • Other judges will deny your disability claim only if you received unemployment after you applied for disability benefits, unless you can prove your condition medically worsened since you applied for unemployment benefits.
  • Other judges simply will not pay you disability benefits for the time period that you were receiving unemployment (and they may ask you to "amend" (change) your disability onset date so that your disability starts after your unemployment benefits ended).
  • Still others judges don't care even if you're receiving unemployment benefits at the time of your hearing. These judges realize that people need income to live on, and that there is no guarantee that someone will receive disability benefits after the long process of applying for benefits.

If I Can Work Part-Time (Only), Can I Collect Unemployment and Apply for Disability?

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.

Will a Judge Ask About Unemployment Benefits at My Hearing?

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."

How Can I Explain Why It Made Sense for Me to Apply for Disability While on Unemployment?

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:

  • You applied for jobs that were within your physical or mental limitations (for example, no heavy work, fast-paced jobs, or high-stress jobs dealing with the public).
  • You applied only for part-time jobs.
  • You applied to jobs where you might have been able to work if the employer had agreed to accommodate your disability (perhaps by providing special equipment or an aide to help you do your job), even though the accommodations you would have needed wouldn't be reasonable for most companies due to their expense.
  • You're 55 or older and you applied only for "light" work, since that's all you can do. In this case, the fact that you can do light work might not hurt your disability claim. Thanks to a special "grid rule" for applicants who are 55 and older and limited to light work, you will qualify for disability unless the judge believes:
    • you have job skills you could easily switch to using for light work
    • you've had recent job training that allows you to do light work, or
    • you can do your old job (the grid rules wouldn't apply in this case).
  • You're 50 or older and you applied only for sit-down ("sedentary") jobs, since that's all you can do. In this case, the fact that you can do sit-down work might not hurt your disability claim. Again, thanks to a grid rule for applicants who are 50 and older and limited to sedentary work, you should be found disabled unless the judge believes:
    • you've had recent job training for sedentary work,
    • you have job skills for sedentary work, or
    • you can do your old job (the grid rules wouldn't apply in this case).

(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.)

So, Should You Apply for Disability or Wait?

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

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