Dealing with disability: Advice to farmers on navigating the Social Security system

by Patrick O’Hara/MS, LMSW – New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health

According to the U.S. Labor Department, the average American farmer is 58 years of age. It’s no surprise to anyone that farming is a physically arduous occupation, and as one farmer told me, “Parts wear out.”

If you have been farming all of your life, you might have a part or two that is wearing out. I know I do, and I’m not even a farmer. There are also many health risks associated with farming including musculosketal conditions, respiratory disease, noise-induced hearing loss, pesticide related illnesses, degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, other conditions that are just too frightening to mention, and the list just goes on and on. I won’t even mention machinery entanglements and traumatic amputations, but I guess I just did. Your health issues and physical limitations may have adversely affected your ability to farm and might be serious enough for you to consider applying for Social Security Disability. I know, just reading “Social Security Disability” has probably turned you off to reading any further, but it’s your money that you have hopefully paid into the system.

Now for the disclaimer, I am not an attorney and this is not meant to be legal advice. I am a NYCAMH state licensed social worker, who has not lost a farmer Social Security case in going on 17 years. I would like to say that it’s a testament to my work ethic and expertise, but sadly it has more to do with the debilitating physical conditions challenging many farmers. When a farmer relates that he, or she, is disabled and unable to work, you had better believe them.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has two programs to assist disabled workers, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSDI provides monthly benefits to disabled individuals who have paid into the SSA system and who pass a Duration of Work Test. SSI provides monthly benefits to disabled individuals who are poor and pass an income and resource means test. For the purpose of this article, I will only focus upon SSDI and the self-employed farmer.

SSDI determinations are obviously based upon your disability, but SSA also considers your age, education, special training, and pertinent work history. Concerning farmers, it has been my experience that it is beneficial to be over 50 years of age, to not have a college education, and to have a work history of hard manual labor required for farm work.

There are many steps to the SSA disability determination. SSA must first determine whether you are engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). SGA is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful, and is based upon income and work hours for the self-employed. The SGA monthly earnings amount increase every year, and the SGA level for 2019 is $ 1,220. SGA is also set at 40 work hours per month. If you are working over 40 hours per month or earning more than $ 1,220, you are considered to be performing Substantial Gainful Activity and will receive a Technical Denial at the local SSA office level. There are some SGA considerations with income, so if you are close in income, you may still want to apply.

Additionally, if you are working over 40 hours per month but not earning any income, SSA will still consider you to be performing SGA just because of the work hours. SSA considers “supervision” time as work. For discussion purposes, let’s say a farmer suffered spinal paralysis as the result of a traumatic accident and is confined to a wheelchair and unable to work. The farmer has turned over the farm to his son and is not earning an income. The farmer has difficulty letting go of the occupation he loves and spends three hours a day, five days a week, in the barn supervising his son from his wheelchair. In all honesty, he is probably just spending time in the barn, but pride may push him to state that he is supervising his son. SSA would consider the paralyzed farmer to be performing SGA because he is spending 60 hours per month “supervising”. As I will discuss later, it is very important what you say and how you answer questions.

If it is determined that you are not performing Significant Gainful Activity or not working at all, the SSA will determine if you have a medically determinable impairment. This impairment must be severe, or a combination of impairments must be severe and significantly limit your ability to perform basic work activities, and the medical condition has lasted one year, is expected to last one year, or result in death.

If it is determined that you have a severe impairment that significantly limits your ability to perform your work activities, the SSA will then attempt to determine your Residual Functional Capacity to perform other work based upon your age, education, training and past relevant work experience within the last 15 years prior to the date of disability. SSA will then determine if there is any work in the national economy that you can perform, based upon your disability, age, education, and past work history. You will have passed the last hurdle if it is determined that you do not have the residual functional capacity to perform work, and you will be approved for SSDI.  If so, you will receive monthly disability payments and members of your family may qualify for benefits. This includes your spouse, if 62 or older or at any age if caring for a child under the age of 16, and any unmarried children under the age of 18, or 19 if still in school.

Do not lose hope if you are denied. A denial is not uncommon and if denied, you should hire an attorney and request an administrative hearing. Federal law limits the fees charged by Social Security attorneys to 25 percent of your retroactive payments if approved, or $6,000, whichever is lower. The payments are taken in small increments from your monthly disability check. It is important to research your attorney and not just pick the one you see advertising on television.  As a general rule, impressive attorneys on television usually have paralegals, or lesser attorneys, do the heavy lifting. Hire an attorney that specializes in Social Security disability work.

So, how do you apply? You can apply online for SSDI at www.ssa.gov, or call 800.772.1213 to schedule an appointment at your local Social Security office. I recommend applying at the local office, if you have a disability that is visible and obvious. They do not make disability determinations at the local office, but it is always good to apply in person if you have a visible disability, such as limb loss. Other than that, I would highly recommend getting your medical records and applying online. If you apply online, you will be required to complete two applications. The first application is rather simple and focuses upon background information such as applicant identification, contact information, birth and citizenship, marriage information, children, employer details, self-employment details, ability to work, and total earnings. The application also has a remarks section. The second application is more demanding and undoubtedly the most important. This application asks you to list all of your medical conditions and treating medical professionals, along with addresses, phone numbers, medical record numbers, first, last and next appointment dates, medical conditions treated, treatment received, medical tests, and all medications. They will also inquire about your job history, job details, and education. This is a very tall order unless you have your medical records right in front of you.

The SSA employee will ask the same questions if you apply in person and, undoubtedly, you will not remember everything. Also, it has been my experience that farmers do not advocate for themselves very well. They tend to minimize symptoms, problems and pain, and do not offer up important information. Usually their spouse is the one who does most of the talking at the SSA interview.

The same can be said for physician appointments. It can be challenging to make a good case for disability if the farmer consistently minimizes symptoms with his physician, but that is fodder for another article.

You can get a copy of your medical records, but it will be expensive. I have my NYCAMH farmer clients sign a release of medical information form to gain access to all of their medical records. NYCAMH is part of Bassett Hospital and there is no charge for the records. I study the records, take notes, and determine the sequential treatment history. This may take many days as the medical records slowly arrive at NYCAMH. Once this prep work is finished, I complete the online application for the client, listing every medical condition using the medical professional’s own terminology to describe the disability in compelling detail. Depending upon the case, it will usually take a few days to complete the online application. Following the submission of the online application, the client will receive an SSA Function Report to complete. This is basically an Activities of Daily Living Report and mailed to the client before scheduling of any Independent Medical Exam.

The form can be a minefield if not thoughtfully completed and can potentially kill a positive determination of disability. I refer back to my statement, “it is very important what you say and how you answer questions.” Many questions have inadequate room on the form to accurately answer the questions, and I always submit attachments to thoroughly and accurately answer the question. The form should be taken very seriously and you should seek guidance on answering the questions.

Following your submission of the SSA Function Report, you will undoubtedly be sent for an Independent Medical Exam, with emphasis on independent. You should never drive yourself to this medical exam and should prepare for it, just as you would for a Social Security interview. You can bring your spouse into the exam room, which will be helpful in adding detail if you are less than talkative.

It may take four months for a determination following the independent medical exam. I have successfully expedited some decisions based upon life limiting conditions or financial need.

In one instance, an attorney discharged the client following an unfavorable administrative hearing decision. Attorneys will only do so much for a $6,000 pay out. I continued with the case, applied again with additional medical evidence and the client was approved.

The system can be daunting and the fight discouraging. It can also come at a time when you are focused upon your farm, your family, and your health. Do not give up. NYCAMH can help with the heavy lifting and all you will have to do is sign a medical release form. Let us help you navigate the Social Security System. NYCAMH services are free and confidential. Call 607.547.6023.

2019-03-18T15:57:14-05:00March 18, 2019|Eastern Edition, Western Edition|0 Comments

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