Panel Paper: Reducing the SSDI Rolls: A New Look at Minimizing Work Disability and Job Loss after Illness or Injury

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8206 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Linda Toms Barker and Kay Magill, IMPAQ International, LLC

The number of individuals entering the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program keeps increasing, and none of the many efforts by the government to slow this down and preserve the program’s financial viability has had a lasting impact. A hopeful, new development is that the Federal government is shifting resources toward programs that help workers remain in or return to their jobs instead of exiting the workforce and applying for SSDI.

Every year, millions of US workers sustain an injury or experience the onset or worsening of a medical problem or disability that causes them to disengage from the workforce and seek medical care, therapy, rehabilitation, or similar services. Ideally, this time away from work is as short as possible, to minimize the consequences for the individual, which may include loss of income, fear of job loss, or negative effects on physical or mental recovery. Some individuals may participate in programs that provide income and other supports (e.g., Workers’ Compensation), but many have little or no access to such benefits, and hundreds of thousands of workers depart the workforce each year and apply for and receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

Despite a stringent definition of disability, the SSDI program has significantly increased enrollment in recent years. As of 2015, there were over nine million workers with disabilities receiving SSDI. One explanation for this is an aging population that tends to experience more illness or disability that can lead to premature exit from the workforce. We now also have a large population of people with disabilities (PWD) who 50 years ago might have not have made it into the workforce at all but who have had access to education and careers and, as a result, become eligible for SSDI should they eventually need it.

Concerns over the financial viability of the SSDI program have resulted in many efforts by SSA administrators and the US Congress to reduce the number of individuals entering the SSDI program, none of which has had a lasting impact on the program’s trajectory or on the steady decline in the labor force of PWD. A new and hopeful development, however, is the direction in which the US government is moving, i.e., re-directing Federal and state resources toward programs that help PWD remain in or return to their jobs instead of departing the workforce and applying for SSDI.

In this paper, we present lessons learned from our work with the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work (SAW/RTW) Policy Collaborative established by the US Department of Labor (DOL) to support the development of policies that encourage the continued employment of workers likely to leave the workforce due to injury, illness, or disability. We will also describe the multiple avenues, e.g., online dialogues and interactive webinars, the Collaborative relied on to learn from PWD, practitioners, and other experts in the field about effective SAW/RTW practices.