An Employer’s Guide to Understanding Social Security Disability Insurance
Carol Harnett: [00:00:00] Hello, this is Carol Harnett. I’m the president of The Council for Disability Awareness. Welcome to our podcast, which is called The Financial Health and Income Network. Today we are going to talk specifically to employers about how Social Security Disability Insurance works and how it can help protect employees who can no longer work due to an illness or an injury.
What is important for employers to know in a grounding basis, around disability insurance products is that in the group insurance market, there is a product that most employers are probably familiar with called long term disability insurance. About one third of employees — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — in the United States have what’s called an LTD policy — a long term disability insurance policy — that’s either fully paid by the employer, or partially paid by the employer.
In addition to that, about half of Americans have some form of disability coverage, most of which makes up the difference. It is either a group policy that the employee pays all of the premium for instead of getting assistance from their employer, or they may be doing something called an individual disability insurance policy that they secure working directly with an agent or an advisor and an individual disability carrier.
Today we are going to focus on this very specific type of coverage that is provided by the federal government but has a very well-defined process, including a very well-defined approval process, application process, and review process. This is Social Security Disability Insurance.
You can hear the full podcast or if you’d rather read than listen, we captured the transcript from the conversation below.
Introducing Ted Norwood from IBI, Inc.
I’m really pleased to have a subject matter expert with us on the show today. My guest is Ted Norwood. He’s the general counsel and director of representation at Integrated Benefits, Inc. We are very pleased that IBI, which is their acronym, is a member of The Council for Disability Awareness and supports us. So we thank them for that. Welcome Ted. We’re so pleased to have you here with us today.
Ted Norwood: [00:02:21] Thanks Carol. It is a pleasure to be here. I’m really excited to let people know about how all this works because it is a frequently misunderstood system.
Carol Harnett: [00:02:36] If you don’t mind, I’m going to kick you off in the most basic of all things, which is: we assume that everybody understands what SSDI is, and with them we use the acronym all the time, and A, nobody even understands what the acronym means and B, really doesn’t understand what the coverage is. Can you go right to the basics and ground our employer listeners in that?
What is SSDI?
Ted Norwood: [00:03:08] Sure. SSDI– commonly just referred to as Social Security Disability– is a disability program through the federal government’s social security system that you pay into from your paycheck through your taxes.
It covers anyone that pays in. It doesn’t cover lots of federal employees, people that don’t pay those taxes. For instance, lots of teachers aren’t covered– they’re covered by different things. Railroad workers are covered by a separate policy, but they must pay in, and that differentiates it from the other social security disability program that people often combine with it or get confused by, which is SSI, or supplemental security income. This is a disability program for people that don’t have the work history or haven’t paid in. It’s a much smaller benefit.
SSDI is a better benefit; it’s a pretty strong benefit with an average payout of $1,600 a month. After being disabled for twenty-nine months, you become Medicare-eligible, and it will last until Social Security finds that you are no longer disabled or until you hit full retirement age. And they do reviews every two to five years of your case to see if you’re still disabled.
Although social security policy can bore some people– the big takeaway is that Social Security Disability is designed to work with long term disability to provide the best policies. A combination is the most important thing.
Carol Harnett: [00:05:08] That’s really well said and it’s a great basic summary. One thing I’d like to ask is– and I think some of our listeners are not familiar with — is I’ve often heard that you have to pay quote-unquote a certain amount of quarters into Social Security before you would become eligible for SSDI. What does that mean when people say that?
What is Elligibility for SSDI?
Ted Norwood: [00:05:35] It means you have to work a certain amount. You know, if you just go out and get a job and then claim disability right away, you haven’t really paid in enough to qualify. The rule is about 40 quarters, which is about 10 years of work. If you’re younger than that, there are formulas for adjusting that. When people are applying for Social Security disability, they usually have a significant amount of work history, and if they don’t have the work history, then they have to apply for the SSI. So most of your applicants are people that have a strong work record, but they’re not able to do the job that they’ve been doing anymore.
Carol Harnett: [00:06:32] Those are good points. When you say a strong work record, is that a nice way of saying that these are people who are older, who have worked for a period of time? If so, do you happen to know what the average age might be for a typical applicant?
Ted Norwood: [00:06:51] Uh-oh, I think I’m busted here because I don’t know what the average age of the typical applicant would be, but I would say it would skew older. Young people are covered. If you’re working at a salary job, odds are you’re probably covered if you’re going through, or if you have a steady job, or even steady seasonal work, but the average applicant is older. That’s probably mostly a factor of the wear and tear that goes on to your body after years of working. You know in your 20s and 30s you’re going to be stronger and more flexible, with better recovery and stuff, and less likely to have those over time injuries. So I would say that average applicant is probably around 50 if I had to guess.
Carol Harnett: [00:07:52] Okay, that seems fair. When I think about what I know about long term disability claims, we do know when people are younger that is often when we’ll see more accident related reasons for being out of work, while illness is usually the major reason why people are out on long term disability. Accidents will play a larger role the younger you are and then the older you are obviously illness tends to play the biggest role.
Now you just made a point that I think is really important for employers to understand, which is a big differentiator between long term disability insurance and SSDI, and that is this idea of what type of work are you disabled from? Are you disabled from your ability to do your own occupation, or your own job, or are you disabled from being able to do any kind of work? And can you shed some light for listeners on the requirements around your inability to work when you apply for SSDI?
Clarify the Inability to Work
Ted Norwood: [00:09:05] Absolutely. This is a critical difference between the private disability and this public disability. When people think that they’re disabled, and they can’t work as an engineer anymore, or they can’t work in their factory anymore, or as a teacher, they think: well, “I’m disabled.” If you have a private policy, then that’ll mean you will be disabled, probably for a couple of years at least.
Social Security is different. Social Security I call a “catastrophic” disability policy– that’s an unofficial term– but it only covers you if you’re disabled from any work. The language of the Act says from being able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers. Once upon a time they liberally interpreted that and they’d cut you some slack, but over the last 15 or more years, they’ve really cracked down, and when they say significant numbers, I mean almost any job.
So, if you are, let’s say you’re 49 and and you had a really good job at a Ford plant, and you have some back problems. Maybe you had some cancer, something going on, something severe, you no longer can do that job. But if Social Security thinks that you can be a ticket taker at the movie theater on a full-time basis– which I don’t even know what movie theaters employ those people– they’re going to deny your case. They use a lot of outdated information, which isn’t necessarily their fault, but it’s difficult and they’re very tough.
An important thing to understand is that if you’re relying on Social Security, you have to be really, really limited. If you can’t do hard physical work, but you could do a sit-down job, there’s a really good chance you won’t get your Social Security. The terrible thing about that is that if you’re used to doing hard work, and then you want to transition to a sit-down job, it might be really hard, especially if you’re older, to transition to that. So you end up in this gap where Social Security says, “you’re not disabled, you’re capable of performing some jobs. You’re just unemployed.” Meanwhile, unemployment says yeah, you’re unemployed; but you know, our insurance only lasts for so long, and it’s really tough for people to find the resources to be able to make those transitions and get those jobs.
Job Function Differentiation
Carol Harnett: [00:12:00] That’s a really fair point. In long term disability insurance– provided, both by an employer and bought individually by the consumer, does somebody quote-unquote meet the definition of disability? We don’t expect someone who’s done a job like a physician, for example, or a senior executive in a company, to do a job that goes outside of their knowledge, skills, and abilities. We don’t expect them to be that ticket taker at a movie theater. It’s a much closer alliance to work, that either is exactly like what they used to do, or similar to what they used to do, using transferable skills.
Sometimes, a surgeon may no longer be able to do surgery because she has a hand tremor, but she could do medical reviews for an insurance company. She could also see patients and screen them for whether they’re a candidate for surgery. That is big difference between a private disability insurance policy and a public one like SSDI, is that correct?
Accommodations for Work: Private vs. SSDI
Ted Norwood: [00:13:28] Yes, and I would add that lots of private policies that I’ve seen factor in income. For instance, you are a successful surgeon who develops a hand tremor. Although you might make several hundred thousand dollars a year, you will go to an insurance review physician position, and you are probably not going to come close to that salary.
The policies on the private side will lots of times accommodate that. They might say: “Hey, this is an offset– because you’re capable of doing this or we expect you to try to find this,” but they make up the difference. Social Security says that if you have a really solid job making $60,000 a year, but they think that you might still be able to do this job, which is minimum wage, they expect you to go do it.
Carol Harnett: [00:14:34] Yes, I think that’s that is probably not on their radar.
Ted Norwood: [00:14:42] No. When I’ve talked to employers and when I talk to claimants and people in general, they really don’t know anything about it, I always tell them that that’s fine. Hopefully you don’t have to really ever know about the details of Social Security Disability. You find if you have to go through it, that’s really unfortunate, but once you become an employer, and you’re making decisions about whether or not to offer policies to your employees, it’s then it becomes important to understand what they’re really facing. If you think that someone will, they can just get on Social Security, you know, if they can’t work here– that’s not as easy as it may sound. Unfortunately. I wish it were.
Carol Harnett: [00:15:36] You mentioned an average benefit, but because we’re talking about the monetary side of Social Security now, can you help listeners understand the range of payments? And can you also clarify, is there a cap or a maximum that somebody might receive on Social Security Disability?
Ted Norwood: [00:16:02] Well sure. Once you go on Social Security Disability, your payment depends on your work history and your payment history. When I say your work history, that means what you’ve paid in. You don’t pay into Social Security if you make over a certain salary or income per year; you only pay up to a cap. The max benefit, what does it end up being? I think I want to say it’s about three thousand dollars, and it can go up if you have dependents because it gives you extra benefits if you have minor dependents during the same time you’re out. But you know, you can’t replace a large salary just on Social Security disability.
Carol Harnett: [00:17:00] And if there were a minimum payment?
Ted Norwood: [00:17:05] Well, the minimum payment would be about eight hundred dollars. The SSI benefit, which varies– and that’s for people that don’t have any SSDI coverage at all– usually is somewhere between five and eight hundred depending on all the factors that go into that. So SSDI is always going to be better than that.
And I say “always.” You know, whenever as a lawyer I say “always” that really just means “almost always.” Sure enough, some lawyer’s listening saying “no, that’s not true; here is the example where it’s different.” And yes, but speaking generally, for someone to take away,I would say, $800, but that’s very low.
Carol Harnett: [00:17:56] It’s not a lot of money; this is a monthly payment, just to clarify for our listeners.
Ted Norwood: [00:18:03] Yes. It’s a monthly payment.
One of the things I should mention — talking about lawyers– another difference between private insurance and Social Security is you almost need to have a lawyer to get on Social Security [Disability]. If you have a terminal illness, you probably don’t, but you’re taking a risk doing it yourself. To use the Social Security’s Disability program, it’s strongly encouraged that you use an attorney– even by Social Security.
Private insurance, you don’t need an attorney to get on. Sometimes there are disputes between insurers and claimants, and you might need a specific type of attorney when that comes up. But for the most part, you don’t get an attorney to activate your private disability policy; that’s a big advantage, too.
Carol Harnett: [00:19:04] Yes. You’re leading right into the next question, which is: What is the process? How do you apply and when do you apply for Social Security disability? How does the process work and how quickly might you receive a decision?
The Application Process
Ted Norwood: [00:19:22] Social Security only covers disabilities that arise from a medically identified problem that will last for 12 months or more.
If you break both your legs, but you’re probably going to be better in six to eight months, then you won’t qualify. If there are complications with that and it ends up taking 12 months before you can go back to work, then you could qualify. However, Social Security’s going to look at that very suspiciously.
Once you are out, or once you know you’re probably going to be out for a year and facing a kind of a grim diagnosis — there’s a lot of really grim stuff we deal with in disability, obviously– then you should apply. Once you’re sure you’re not going to be able to do this for a long time, then you want to apply.
You can file online. Everyone should be online creating their My SSA Account, even if they’re not about to apply. It’s good that Social Security’s trying to expand their online presence and getting that set up helps them out. You can go online and apply. You can also go up to your district office; the same place where you get your Social Security card, and file an application. Social Security will take it, make sure you have coverage for SSDI. Then, they send it out to the state agency, which is a federally-funded state agency.
They will evaluate you. The first step takes somewhere between two and six months, and this depends on how quickly they get your doctor’s records, how backed up they are, how difficult your case is, and if they have to send you to an exam.
After the initial evaluation, there’s about a 35% chance of being awarded– which means a 65% chance of being denied. The next step is to then file a reconsideration, which is just a review by that same state agency. There are certain regions in the country currently where you don’t have to file for reconsideration, but Social Security just changed that and they’re moving to everyone going back to reconsideration.
Reconsideration. It’s the exact same process again, but they have someone else at the agency look at it. Obviously since it’s the same agency, they’re not going to have the same award rate of their own denial, so it’s about a 15% chance they’ll pay that case. So an 85% chance you’re going to be denied.
Now you are 6 to 12 months into your application and you still don’t have benefits. Now you request a hearing with an administrative law judge. Your case gets back to the federal Social Security program. They’ll assign your case to a hearing office, which is different than your district office, and there’s a long wait for that. It’s somewhere between 12 and 20 months. Depending on where you are, there are a few offices that are under 12 months, and there are some offices that are getting close to 30 months of waiting time.
Building a Case
Now you wait and you build your case. Hopefully you keep going to the doctor. You don’t get any benefits, or any insurance, and you wait until you get in front of a judge. You explain your case to the judge, and you’ll give him all of you medical records that you can get a hold of, and he’ll make a decision. Hopefully you have a good attorney.
At that point you have about a 45 percent chance to be awarded. If you’re denied by an ALJ you do have an appeal within Social Security to their Appeals Council. It’s another year usually and they don’t send many cases back because they’re really trying to not add to that backlog they already have and they basically dare you to take your case to Federal Court.
Appeals in Federal Court
If you talk to your attorney and they want to take your case to Federal Court, you can do that. The courts love this because courts are ALWAYS looking to have lots of cases– that’s a lawyer joke! Social Security floods the courts with these cases. At that point, your case is no longer actually in the agency, it’s in federal court, and you’re actually suing Social Security and saying, “hey, you guys didn’t follow your own rules, and you wrongfully denied my disability.”
The odds are 50/50 in the federal courts, but it’s important to remember that most attorneys will only take very strong cases to federal court. It’s a really long, difficult process and you can’t just take your chances up there. You’ve got to have a really good case now. I will say this: most attorneys only take really good cases to begin with.
One thing that’s important is there’s a myth of disability fraud, It doesn’t really exist, because you have to work so long to get coverage to even qualify. If you haven’t worked enough, your scam isn’t going to work, because you just can’t get benefits. You get awarded, only after a long, difficult process. That is, if you work long enough to qualify. You go two years without income, and then all you get is $1,800 a month, which is certainly less than you were making before. So it’s a really, really bad scam. But people continue to think there’s a lot of fraud, when most of the rot is actually on the inside.
Carol Harnett: [00:26:00] I would ask a clarifying question: you’ve mentioned having an attorney help you with your case. Is there a charge for people when they have an attorney help?
Associated Attorney Fees
Ted Norwood: [00:26:11] Social Security has really set some strict rules on on fees, and your fee always has to be approved by Social Security. You cannot charge a fee up front. All fees are– if the claimant is paying it– your fee has to be contingent, and the max you can get is 25 percent. If you use Social Security’s fee agreement, the cap is $6,000. An attorney can charge their fees and expenses to a claimant. Most do, but some don’t though, and some attorneys will ask for money up front to hold to cover expenses and stuff, but most don’t. It’s pretty much free for you to get the attorney to do their work, but they’ll only take your case if they think they can win. If they don’t think you have a case then it’s not a sound business decision for them.
Carol Harnett: [00:27:08] Great. Well, I can’t believe how fast this time is going. We have a little less than three minutes.
Ted Norwood: [00:27:14] I saw that.
Carol Harnett: [00:27:16] I had to look at my list of questions and I think the best one to choose at this point is: in your experience what final closing words of advice would you give to employers when you think about disability in general and Social Security disability insurance on top of that?
Final Word to Employers
Ted Norwood: [00:27:35] Group private disability insurance is a pretty affordable benefit, and it is a lifesaver for your employees if they go out of work. Fighting with Social Security is so hard. Everyone we represent that has LTD says, “that $10 a month was the best decision I ever made.” They get their benefits quicker. They still have to go through the Social Security process, because there’s an offset to that LTD, but they have money, they’re getting something. They’re not scrambling.
Social Security– if you have to wait for Social Security, it doesn’t just decimate your spirit and your income; it decimates your insurance coverage; your ability to pay for the doctors, who eventually stop seeing you. It ruins marriages and relationships and strains your family because people lose their houses. And it is long and difficult and tragic. It’s so affordable and such a good benefit to give to your employees. When they go out sick, or they get cancer, they wear down– and they’re better-taken care of. I believe in it, and it was not even on my radar when I came out of law school; I hope employers at least look into it.
Carol Harnett: [00:29:08] Well said. I’ve known a gentleman by the name of Dick Mucci who currently runs the group insurance operation at Lincoln Financial. He has worked in and around individual disability and group disability, the private industry, his whole career. He has always said he couldn’t imagine why employers wouldn’t provide long-term disability coverage. It’s difficult for an employer to lay someone off after three or six months and leave them without some form of an income to help them get through long term disability.
So with that, Ted, I’m going to say, thank you so much for the information you shared. It’s been a privilege to have you on this show.
Ted Norwood: [00:29:54] Thanks for having me; I appreciate it. Good luck, everyone.
Carol Harnett: [00:29:57] Thank you, everyone. Bye-bye.