The path to total disability benefits can be challenging. However, many veterans will pursue total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU or IU) to obtain compensation at the 100% level without the total rating. Veterans on this path may wonder how working in a sheltered work environment will affect their TDIU claim or benefits. Here’s what you should know.
Total Disability Based on Individual Unemployability
The process the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) utilizes to calculate your overall disability rating can make it difficult to reach a 100% VA disability rating. This is because they do not simply add each percentage together. Often, the closer your total gets to 100%, the harder it is to bump up your overall rating to the highest possible level.
The good news is that veterans can achieve compensation at the 100% level by other means. Individual Unemployability can be filed as an additional claim if your service-connected disabilities keep you from securing and maintaining substantially gainful employment.
In order for the VA to award TDIU (total disability based on individual unemployability), you must first qualify based on your rating. TDIU can be awarded once you have a single disability at 60% or if you have a total of 70% or higher with at least one disability rated at 40%.
Additionally, due to the nature of the benefit, most people are also unemployed the VA awards TDIU. However, there are special circumstances that may still qualify you for TDIU while employed. This is because VA unemployability does not always equate to not working.
Qualifying for TDIU While Employed
How can you be deemed unemployable if you’re working?
To understand whether you qualify for these veterans benefits, especially if you are working, it is important to be familiar with the definitions that the VA uses when discussing individual unemployability.
Veterans often qualify for TDIU if they’re unable to obtain or hold “substantially gainful employment.”
Substantially gainful employment is defined by the amount of earnings from an employed position. The total amount of earnings from your job is considered gainful if they are above the poverty level. It is also defined as competitive employment where a non-disabled individual may earn a comparable income to the particular occupation in the same area.
To determine if your earnings may be deemed gainful for veterans disability benefits, the VA refers to the U.S. Department of Commerce which establishes the poverty level amount. The 2021 poverty threshold is $12,880 for an individual.
If you are employed and your earned annual income doesn’t exceed the poverty level, the VA may consider your work to be marginal employment. If that is the case, you can receive TDIU in some circumstances – assuming you qualify in terms of the minimum rating required for unemployability benefits.
Sheltered Employment & TDIU Entitlement
Sheltered employment is one of the most common types of marginal employment. While it’s not always clear how working in a sheltered work environment will affect your eligibility for TDIU, you could still qualify.
So, what exactly counts as sheltered employment?
Sheltered employment involves holding a job but in a protected work environment. In this case, you’re maintaining a position where the employer makes accommodations for your disability.
In other words, while you may not be able to work at another job, you’re able to keep this one due to your accommodations. These accommodations may include diminished quotes, additional time off, extra breaks, the ability to leave work at will, etc.
Sheltered employment essentially is a job where you are not working under regular expectations. It may be a job where you are expected to do the most you can and whenever you are able. Generally, with a sheltered employment position, you are held to a different set of standards due to any limitations you may have resulting from your service connected disabilities.
The employer may have also developed the job specifically for you to allow you to keep working. For example, you may have permission to go home due to a migraine or are allowed to work individually if you have severe anxiety or other mental health condition.
Family businesses are a common example of sheltered work environments, since you’re still employed but likely receive extra accommodations for your specific impairment.
How Can You Verify Sheltered Employment?
There are many different circumstances that the VA might define as sheltered employment, but you must be able to submit supporting evidence if you are claiming unemployability.
For sheltered employment, it is extremely important to try and obtain a statement from your employer. Ask them to verify any accommodations they may have made, demonstrating to the VA that your current position is in a sheltered environment. Similarly, the VA will require documentation of marginal employment if it is shown that you are working but requesting TDIU benefits.
It can be very difficult to obtain TDIU benefits under these exceptions, so just remember to have all the documentation ready if you are working and your position falls into one of the above categories. This statement can support medical records and other evidence showing your disability. As a reminder, you will still have to file the VA Form 21-8940. You can find a full TDIU guide with instructions on how to complete the required form here.
Have Questions About Your VA Claim?
If the VA denied your original claim or application for TDIU or you disagree with their rating decision, the veterans law attorneys at Hill & Ponton are here to help. We help disabled veterans and their family members obtain the disability compensation that they’re entitled to. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.
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