We can all agree that the mere sight of the numbers 2-0-2-1 bring with them a sense of hope! For your consumers who receive Social Security disability benefits, 2021 also brings a bit of relief due to something called COLA. Every year, usually in October, the federal government announces the latest Cost of Living Adjustment, fondly referred to as COLA. The new rates are based on the Consumer Price Index, which is really a measure of the average change in prices for the nation’s goods and services.
So how does COLA help consumers receiving SSDI?
Social Security’s Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level and many of its work incentives are based on the annual COLA rate. In 2020, for instance, that meant a consumer eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) earning less than $1,260 per month might still be eligible for benefits after his or her Trial Work Period. The new 2021 SGA level for workers who are disabled is $1,310; for workers who are blind, the 2021 SGA level is $2,190.
That slight increase in the SGA means your consumer can now earn $50 more per month ($600 per year) and still qualify for benefits. When the SGA increases, many consumers can earn more and continue to be eligible for benefits. Let’s face it, especially right now, every extra dollar really does count!
Do SSI recipients also benefit from COLA?
COLA also affects recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI). In 2020, the maximum SSI payment was $783.The new Federal Benefit Rate for 2021 is $794, an increase of $11 per month.
Students with disabilities who are working and using the Student Earned Income Exclusion make up another group affected by COLA.. In 2021, Social Security ensures that working students can keep more of their SSI check by not counting up to $1,930 per month ($7,770 annually) of earned income when calculating a student’s monthly SSI payment. This is a real incentive for students to try working.
What does an employment specialist need to know and do?
Teach reporting! The single most important piece of information you can share with your consumers is that they must report employment and earnings to Social Security if they receive benefits. As an employment specialist or consultant, you can support people, initially when work begins and during extended services, by helping them to report their earnings.
The good news is that this is much simpler than you might think. Here are some simple tips you can share with your consumers to help assist them with reporting:
- As soon as work begins, make sure to report employment to Social Security.
- Continue reporting income to Social Security each month (via phone, mail, in-person or online through their My Social Security account).
- If a person brings their paystubs to a Social Security office, get a receipt and keep this–it’s proof that income was reported!
- Keep the original paystubs and receipts and place them in a safe place that can be easily located if needed.
- Report to other benefits or assistance agencies. Agencies do not share records, so it’s important to submit earnings reports to Social Security and any other agencies that coordinate need-based benefits (e.g. the Indiana Department of Family Resources for consumers receiving Medicaid).
- Besides income, report other changes such as: student status, marital status, living arrangement, etc.
- Open ALL mail that comes for SSA and respond in a timely manner.
Regular reporting eliminates complications
Through regular reporting, consumers can avoid hurdles that may cause them to falter on their employment path. You and your job seeker have worked hard to get a job, and regular reporting can help keep them there! Failure to report can often lead to reduced or stopped benefits checks due to overpayments or even terminated benefits. These unfortunate–and many times easily avoidable–situations can cause people to panic and quit their jobs. A consumer quitting their job because of disrupted benefits does not resolve the issues. In fact, quitting the job can leave them with reduced or no income. Let’s work to not let these missteps stand in the way of successful employment in 2021!
You can help your consumer by educating and assisting them with reporting from the onset of employment. Through your guidance and initial help, they will develop a reporting habit that can continue throughout their career, even after your extended services have ceased. By adding reporting education to your regular employment supports, you will be handing them the keys to a more financially secure future! Remember, this can be a goal on the Employment Supports and Retention Plan (ESRP).
Have more questions?
Contact a Benefits Information Network (BIN) liaison. Many of Indiana’s community rehabilitation providers have a certified BIN liaison on staff. For a referral to a BIN liaison, contact your consumer’s Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor or talk to your co-workers. You may be working right next to a BIN liaison in your own agency!
- SSA Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) Information 2021
- 2021 Benefits Information Fact Sheets from the Center on Community Living and Careers (CCLC)
- Center for Community Living and Career’s (CCLC) Benefits Information Network trainings page for those interested in becoming an Indiana BIN liaison.