Learning how to embrace their relationship with the SSA is a necessity for all beneficiaries. Because of this reality, there are many common questions that ticket holders pose to ENs. “How will going to work affect my disability benefits?” is the most pressing and important to them. Beneficiaries are often concerned about losing their healthcare coverage, about if or when they will lose their cash benefits, and about if working will render them ineligible for disability benefits if they are needed in the future. Let’s keep in mind that the lack of the ability to work at the SGA amount was the main criteria for them to receive SSI, SSDI (or both) to start with, and many people went through years of financial stress and often the absence of healthcare before “going on the rolls.”
Historically, the field of rehabilitation counseling paid little attention to making sure that practitioners knew about SSA work incentives, and beneficiaries were given misinformation or no information at all. However, it is at the very point when beneficiaries are sitting down to discuss their employment plans when they need to understand how their benefits change as they go back to work. Rather than encouraging clients, we rehabilitation counselors and others who work with people who have disabilities have held people back from working entirely or kept people from working at their highest potential.
Thankfully, more of us have come to recognize SSA work incentives training and education as not only a good thing to do, but as integral to the achievement of positive employment outcomes by our clients through the services we provide. Two advantages are listed here:
“Take a Chance”
Providing information about SSA work incentives is perhaps the most convincing way to move people towards making attempts to work. If a client is concerned about the loss to the medical or cash portion of their disability benefits or that they will not be able to access their benefits later, it is unlikely they will try at all. Who can blame them? However, if they can learn about the work incentives associated with their benefits, they will be much more likely to try employment and stay employed. Similarly, if they can understand the timetable related to their benefits and if they can understand how and when they can restore their benefits, they are much more likely to try employment and stay employed. This message to ENs is pure and simple that lasting employment is what gets us paid.
“Knowledge is Power”
Here, I am referring to the empowerment of both counselors and beneficiaries. For counselors, you show an understanding of your clients’ total life picture and an interest in the quality of your services. This can be accomplished by being able to accurately address all questions yourself or by coordinating work incentives planning through another service provider, such as the local Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) project. Again, this knowledge will not only strengthen you professionally but will also result in positive employment outcomes for your clients.
For beneficiaries, the knowledge of SSA work incentives brings a sense of control over a system that they generally fear. Initially, I discussed the work incentives with my clients; however, I would do all of the reporting, would complete work reviews, and would correspond with the SSA regarding specific clients. It then occurred to me that I would better serve my clients in the long term to train them to manage their own relationships with the SSA. I began explaining to them about the documentation that the SSA would expect from them, and now I serve my clients primarily as a resource only. Once they experience success, beneficiaries feel empowered and less fearful in their dealings with the SSA. These lessons bring relief to them that lasts a lifetime.
Formal Versus Informal Training
The type of training you choose depends on your budget or the budget of the organization you represent. Some counselors opt to become certified as Community Work Incentive Coordinators (CWICs) via classes, coursework, and testing. The depth and range of learning are substantial. They cover SSI, SSDI, concurrent beneficiaries, Medicaid, and Medicare. In addition, segments pertaining to public assistance programs, such as rental assistance and food stamps, are taught. These segments include discussions of eligibility for and responsibilities related to employment and reporting earnings to each entity that provides supports to individual clients.
You may decide that you cannot commit to the time or expense of becoming a CWIC and, therefore, can educate yourself through more self-directed means. There are free webinars and websites that you can use. Also, consider visiting with and asking questions of SSA field office personnel and your local WIPA staff.
No matter what we choose to do to become educated about SSA work incentives, we must all remember to seek assistance when unsure of the material and to continue our education over time to stay current with threshold levels, and any other related SSA information. The worst thing we can do is pass inaccurate SSA work incentives information on to our clients and their families.
Where to Get Training
SSA Red Book, A Guide to Work Incentives https://www.ssa.gov/redbook/
VCU National Training and Data Center https://vcu-ntdc.org/index.cfm and https://vcu-ntdc.org/training/initial/archives.cfm
VCU CWIC training https://vcu-ntdc.org/training/initial/initial.cfm