Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place:
Too Sick to Work, Not Sick Enough for Disability
By: Nicole Netkin-Collins
In these lean economic times, we’re getting more and more calls from patients who believe they have been laid off because of their illnesses. Unfortunately, they may be right. But aside from a possible discrimination claim – which is very difficult to prove – being right doesn’t solve the resulting problem: how to obtain a reliable source of income moving forward, especially if you are sick. That’s the issue at the heart of the question: Should I apply for unemployment and/or disability benefits?
The answer varies depending on your circumstances. It is important to know, however, that you CANNOT apply for BOTH unemployment and disability benefits because you have to meet a different “standard” in order to qualify for either one. For example, to qualify for unemployment benefits, you have to be “ready, willing, and able to work.” This means that you’ve become unemployed through no fault of your own – i.e., you were fired (without cause – and what this means differs from state to state) or laid off – and once you get another job offer, you will be ready to accept it. To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, on the other hand, you need to prove that you are too sick to work at any job in the economy. This is a tough standard to meet; for example, even if you were a construction worker, you need to prove that your illness prevents you from working at even the most sedentary, desk job. As such, you cannot simultaneously be “ready, willing, and able to work,” in order to qualify for unemployment benefits, but too sick to work, in order to qualify for disability. You must make a choice: disability or unemployment. You can work or you can’t work.
Unfortunately, the decision isn’t very easy to make for most patients with chronic illnesses. For example, is a young woman with Crohn’s disease suffering from a flare too sick to work or is she “ready, willing, and able to work?” She might be too sick to return to work right away, but is she sick enough to be awarded disability benefits? Similarly, is a woman with food sensitivities, in addition to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, too sick to work or “ready, willing, and able to work?” She was laid off from a position that required her to visit people in their homes – a job that she no longer could perform as her sensitivities to foods increased, but she can work, provided she is accommodated. Yet, there are some days when she cannot get out of bed because of her fibromyalgia and CFS. Both of these women are too sick to work, but are they sick enough for disability? If not, what are they to do?
For some patients, temporary disability might be an option. However, there only are five states in the country that provide temporary disability and they are California, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. If you live in one of these states and believe there’s a chance your illness will go into remission again – like the young woman with Crohn’s disease – you might be able to collect benefits for the short while that you’re sick, and then return to work when you’re better. The application process for temporary state disability takes less time than the process for Social Security disability – several weeks instead of several years – but the financial benefit is likely to be smaller than Social Security.
If you do not live in a state with temporary disability, you have to make a choice: Am I better off taking advantage of the short-term benefit of unemployment, or should I struggle financially in the short term in the hope of the long-term benefit of Social Security disability?
Ultimately, your decision is dependent on your situation. If you believe you’ll recover before the Social Security Administration awards you disability – again, the process can take years – unemployment might be the way to go. However, if you are too sick to work, then disability may be the right option.
I sincerely hope you never feel as if you’re too sick to work, but not sick enough for disability. If you do, though, and you don’t know whether you should pursue unemployment or disability benefits, please do not hesitate to call us.