Jeff’s Story

Navigating Benefits, Planning for the Future

Jeff’s story begins, literally, all in his head. Years ago, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. A decade later, he sustained a second traumatic brain injury from a fall. Both events left Jeff finding it hard to hold a job in his field of finance.

“I could interview for and get the job, but about six months in, they’d realize there were some differences in terms of what my background suggested versus what I was able to do when I started working,” he said.

Family and friends convinced him to get help. He returned to the hospital where his surgery took place and was ultimately encouraged to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. He applied on his own, and it went smoothly—at first. He successfully submitted his application in 2016 and was approved six months later, all while working as a substitute teacher to earn income to support his family.

Then he received a call from his caseworker.

“He had gone back and looked at my earnings during the application period,” Jeff said.

Though technically allowed to work during that time, Jeff’s income was over the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) limit of $1,170 per month. That reversed his approval. Jeff had to reapply, setting the process back more than 3 months.

The rules can be tricky, explained Pete Mulder, program manager for Social Security Disability Work Incentives Counseling at Disability Network Southwest Michigan. He began working with Jeff in 2017, and continues to help him navigate the system.

The counseling program is funded in part by United Way. It fits under United Way’s Income focus area as a strategy for Workforce and Income Supports for Low-Income and Working Individuals. Mulder said the program helps people understand how disability benefits and state health care coverage can be affected by employment.

“Our goal is to help simplify the bureaucracy so the person realizes that they can go to work but also need to understand the rules and regulations,” he said. “So many people will avoid work because they’re afraid they’ll lose benefits.”

With Mulder’s guidance, Jeff has stayed in compliance. He received his first benefits payment early this year. Since he is required to stay under the SGA limit until June, Jeff said he’s lucky to have savings to help him through those months. Many don’t.

“The next challenge becomes figuring out how my social security benefit will impact my health insurance coverage,” Jeff said.

He’ll continue to work with Disability Network through that process and beyond as he begins cognitive rehabilitation, trying to regain some of the executive functions he lost.

“Pete has done a phenomenal job,” said Jeff. “In hindsight, I wish I had been referred here sooner.”

How YOU Can Help

When you give to United Way, you are helping Jeff and others obtain or maintain financial stability. Learn more about our goal to lift 8,500 households into economic stability by 2025, and help us get there.