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From Out of the Shadows (Part Two): Unsuccessful Work Attempts

As was promised in last week’s blog this week we’ll be looking at the Unsuccessful Work Attempt (UWA). UWA is another unheralded and under-documented ‘tool’ available to Social Security staff when they’re trying to assess if an SSDI recipient is really working at Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) levels. As with Income Averaging this is not something that anyone can apply for or work towards but is purely at the discretion of the Social Security caseworker. In common with Income Averaging it can only be applied after the Trial Work Period (TWP) and before the Cessation Month (the first month when Social Security determines an initial pattern of SGA level work). After that, this option’s over for the period of eligibility and a beneficiary will be left with those work incentives he can report: the Impairment Related Work Expense (IRWE); and Subsidy/Special Conditions (see Lauren Horner’s excellent blogs here: and here for more details of those).

It is to Social Security’s credit that the UWA exists as it was designed to allow for and excuse the fact that a good number of beneficiaries may make genuine attempts to work consistently at substantial levels but may, in time, come to accept that they are not able to carry on at that level and either reduce or even discontinue their work activity.

 It would be interesting to learn how Social Security staff tasked with determining whether to apply UWA feel about this tool as there are few hard and fast regulations on what actually constitutes an unsuccessful work attempt. What is certain is that caseworkers can begin to consider the UWA if someone’s work at SGA levels was of six months’ duration or less; any SGA work of more than six months cannot be considered UWA. After those rules things become rather less concrete as the caseworker must then determine why the work activity decreased. If the reduction in work activity was caused by an impairment or by the removal of special conditions at work that had previously been provided to allow for the beneficiary’s impairment then the UWA may be applied. Further considerations for the caseworkers revolve around the matter of determining where the work activity truly begins and when it ends: they are required to consider what constitutes a ‘significant’ break in the continuity of someone’s work. It might be easier to see what’s been going on when someone hasn’t worked for a year, works for two months and then stops; but someone else might work for a while at SGA, drop below SGA because business is slow, subsequently resume working above SGA when business picks up, and perhaps only later decrease his work activity again but this time due to issues concerning an impairment. Such are the vagaries of real life, and so it is that there can be no universal answer to what defines a UWA.

Although there is no simple black-and-white definition of when the UWA applies, the fact remains that in its own obscure and opaque way it joins the ranks of those other SSDI safety nets such as Income Averaging, IRWEs, and Subsidies in encouraging people to work towards achieving their career goals, and should therefore also take its place in the sun.