I help people, children or adults, who have serious mental and/or physical disabilities apply for and receive Social Security disability benefits and I love what I do. I give people hope who have no hope. Often by the time that my clients receive an approval of their claim, they may have lost their homes, their cars and possibly their marriages and children. This is a long read, but it tells an accurate picture of what it’s like for people who are drawing Social Security disability benefits but want to return to work. It’s like picking your path through a minefield without a map – one wrong move and they’ll lose the tenuous existence they have carved out for themselves.
‘I am a hard worker’
Lisa Daunhauer wanted to be one of the few to get off disability. But first she had to succeed at Walmart.
Published on August 27, 2017
They are questions that have become increasingly urgent in a country that is hardening its stance toward recipients of government benefits. Wisconsin wants to be the first state to require childless Medicaid applicants to undergo drug testing. Georgia has dropped thousands from its food-stamp rolls after instituting work requirements. And the Trump administration has proposed a budget that would further erode the social safety net, slicing hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade from Medicaid, food stamps, children’s health insurance and programs that serve the disabled. Taken together, the policies either amount to an assault on the vulnerable, according to Democrats, or, according to Republicans, a promotion of the most American of values: the dignity of work.
“If you’re not truly disabled,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has said, “we need you to go back to work.”
The “strength of our communities depends on able-bodied Americans earning paychecks,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has said.
“If they can get back to work, then by all means, we should help them,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has said.
That was Boullemet: the one who helped, at least in Randolph County, where more than 1 in 8 working-age adults receive disability benefits, and where she is the person they go to see when they want to get off them. She believes work leads to confidence, confidence to hope, and hope was the only way someone could go from letting the government support them to supporting themselves.
There was one client, however, who Boullemet didn’t worry would disappear, but whom she worried about nonetheless, and that was the client she was seeing today.
She knew that Lisa Daunhauer had drawn benefits since 2011 through the Social Security Disability Insurance program and that the only job she had found was at the bottom of the American economy, as a cashier at Walmart. She also knew Daunhauer, whose disability was anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, had nearly been fired from that job, an occurrence that was likely to destroy her chances of working again anytime soon. It had now come down to six weeks. Daunhauer had to find a way through the next six weeks to complete Walmart’s probationary period to have a shot at getting a needed raise and, eventually, becoming one of the rare few to get off disability.
Boullemet was worried about all of that, and those were the only facts of Daunhauer’s life that she knew.
ABOVE LEFT: Teresa Boullemet, a senior rehabilitation counselor with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, makes the hour-long drive between Roanoke and Anniston, Ala. Boullemet is helping Daunhauer transition back into the workforce.
ABOVE RIGHT: Daunhauer, who receives disability for anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, has a college degree and experience working with medical records. She hopes to return to school to pursue a career in nursing.
On the morning of her meeting with Boullemet, Lisa Daunhauer awoke with a nervous stomach on the couch, where she spends almost every moment she’s not at Walmart. She looked around her government-subsidized apartment, seeing nearly everything she owned. The end table she’d built with wood found on the side of the road. The dirtied lamp she’d taken from her mother’s house. The electric fan she runs because air-conditioning is too expensive. And the Bible verse, stitched onto cloth and framed: “The lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
On this morning, peace was a breakfast of two pills — Lamictal for bipolar disorder, Prozac for depression — washed down with iced tea in a Burger King cup, followed by episode after episode of reality television to distract herself from a life that hadn’t gone according to plan. It had begun firmly ensconced in the middle class. There had been a college degree, a marriage, three children, a steady job working with medical records, and a big four-bedroom house in the Atlanta suburbs.
Now, there was an empty apartment, an ex-husband who was dead, and a weathered Chevrolet hatchback she steered through a town that, 15 years ago, she had never even heard of, let alone expected to call home. But that had been before the divorce, the bankruptcy, the drinking, and the time she checked herself into a hospital in May 2005, telling doctors, according to medical records, “I’m having a hard time dealing with life and I don’t want to live.” Then came the morning her manager had smelled alcohol on her breath, fired her, and Daunhauer went to her psychiatrist. “That’s what it’s there for,” the psychiatrist told her of disability insurance. “To get you past whatever it is you’re going through.”
Her monthly disability payment, now worth $1,348, wasn’t enough to live on in the Atlanta suburbs, so she had moved with her three young children to her mother’s place in rural Roanoke, a factory town of 6,000 residents along the Georgia state line.
At first, Daunhauer had liked how isolated it felt, how nothing ever seemed to happen. But as the years went by, the quiet began to feel suffocating, and she started thinking about working again. She moved into an apartment so small that her youngest child, Jacob, 17, had to remain with her mother, and started writing to employers.
“I have 16 years of experience in a medical office setting. I am a hard worker, dedicated and dependable,” she wrote in her cover letter. “I am currently unemployed, but . . . I could be an asset to your organization.”
She stepped into the career center and walked past a line of brochures. “Does your LIFE need a COACH?” one asked. “Hiring TODAY to Protect Alabama TOMORROW!” promised another. The seat she found was beneath a list of the 40 positions most in demand in the state, none of which, she had learned, applied to her.
Was it too late? she had been asking herself lately. Could a divorced 52-year-old living alone on disability turn it around? Was it her? Or Roanoke?
It was a question she had raised with others, including on one of the rare nights she had dinner with Jacob.
“This is a depressing town,” he told her.
“It’s just not the town,” she said. “It’s the atmosphere that I live in.”
“It’s the people,” he said.
“There are no jobs,” she said. “You can’t earn a living.”
“There’s nowhere to,” Jacob said. “Except at Walmart.”
And that was what she was thinking about, her job at Walmart, when she heard a rustle in the back of the career center and saw a door open. Out limped a heavyset man with a white beard, then a woman with toenails painted electric orange.
“Hey, Miss Lisa,” Boullemet said, waving for her to come back and talk.
Daunhauer stood, followed Boullemet into the back room, and the door closed.
Six weeks. She had to make it only six more weeks.
How recipients work themselves off disability
For people receiving Social Security Disability (SSDI), there are two steps that take at least 45 months, or almost four years, to complete:
Complete the trial work period
During this period, recipients can test their ability to work, without affecting their benefits.
Requirements for completion:
Must earn at least $840 per month for nine months in a rolling 60-month period
Complete the Extended Period
Benefits are suspended for every month earnings exceed $1,170, beyond the first three, otherwise benefits continue.
During the first 36 months, benefits may be suspended if the recipient has “substantial gainful activity,” which the government defines as earning at least $1,170 per month.
After the 36 months are complete, disability benefits end, but only when the recipient earns more than $1,170 in a month.
For people receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), every dollar earned after the first $85 eliminates 50 cents from their disability check:
This means recipients receiving the maximum $735 check can earn up $1,555 per month and still be eligible for a disability payment. The beneficiaries can also continue receiving Medicaid unless their annual earnings exceed the state income threshold for Medicaid recipients with disabilities.
Note: SSDI process described here applies only to non-blind beneficiaries.
Source: Social Security Administration program materials
THE WASHINGTON POST
But Boullemet understood the odds. She knew there were real reasons so few people, even those with relatively minor disabilities, worked themselves off benefits. She would see it when people told her they couldn’t do anything that would endanger their government payments and health insurance. Or when someone would come to see her once, seemingly committed to working, and then disappear. Or when her clients would get so nervous they’d quit their new jobs — or go on a bender — right before the start date. But by far, Boullemet’s most common experience was for no one to call her at all. Some days, she would just sit and wait.
This year, the United States will spend more money on disability benefits than food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment. (Danielle Kunitz and Whitney Leaming)
In Alabama and nationally, about 2 percent of all disability beneficiaries participate in the federal workforce reentry program that Boullemet has worked with for more than a decade. The participation rate is so low that some experts say Ticket to Work — which helps people get back to work after they have spent months, years even, convincing the government that they cannot — is beyond repair.
“You have to get them before they’re declared disabled,” said Bruce Growick, a retired Ohio State University professor who helped shape the program. “Once you declare them disabled, forget it. You’re climbing a mountain you’ll never get to the top of.”
There are, however, always those who try. People such as the five disability beneficiaries Boullemet saw one morning at a center that works with the disabled. They sat around a big table, and Boullemet pulled out a notebook, crossed her legs and smiled.
“What would you like to do?” she asked.
There was a long silence, until, quietly, one person named Brenda said, “I love to clean.”
“Housekeeping?” Boullemet said. “Very good.”
“I just want to get a job,” said Joycelynn, a woman with glasses. “I applied to a bunch of places.”
“We’ve had just a small, small number actually called for interviews,” said Candace Green, a center employee. “So far, it just hasn’t worked out.”
“I applied to Jack’s, Burger King, Subway, Dad’s Bar-B-Que,” Joycelynn said.
“So many places,” Brenda seconded.
“Well, we’ll do more career exploration,” Boullemet said. “What you like. What you don’t like. What you’d like to do.”
“I like to stay busy,” Joycelynn said.
“I don’t like to be bored,” Brenda added. “Sometimes, I’ll sit on the floor with a toothbrush and scrub the floor.”
RIGHT: In downtown Roanoke, more than half of the businesses on Main Street are closed, and some of the ones that remain in the town — discount stores, fast-food restaurants and Walmart — pay less than a disability check.
There were times when Boullemet would come out of meetings like this — in which she thought just one person, maybe two, could get hired — make the long drive home, and, trying to distract herself from the barriers separating her clients from work, reach for a Nora Roberts novel on tape. On those evenings, it didn’t seem like it was just about finding the right job, or getting a client to return her calls, but everything. It was the lack of transportation. A lost photo ID. The weight of living in a community where more than half of the businesses on Main Street had closed, and some of the ones that remained in the town — discount stores, fast-food restaurants and Walmart — paid less than a disability check.
Then morning would come again, and Boullemet would be back on the road, feeling better about her clients’ chances, convinced that the next meeting always had the potential to unearth another “diamond” like Lisa Daunhauer, who was sitting across the table from Boullemet, hands clasped in her lap.
Daunhauer, an earnest woman with short brown hair and blue eyes, was different from most of Boullemet’s clients. She had years of experience working in a professional setting, a college degree in fashion merchandising and a clear motivation to work: She wanted to afford an apartment large enough to accommodate Jacob. Her job interview at Walmart had gone great, and on Feb. 15, Daunhauer started on the cash register. “A true success story,” Boullemet said.
But she had begun to see signs of tension. Daunhauer was almost too desperate to succeed. In the first six months of employment, all new Walmart employees were given four strikes before they were fired, and the pressure of that had seemed to work against her. She worked so hard, punishing herself over the smallest of mistakes, that she became sick from the stress and missed two shifts — two strikes. Then she overslept and was late — half a strike. Then she was absent again when her daughter was ill — another strike. And finally, in early June, she became hopeless about her chances of succeeding at Walmart and, for no greater reason than that, skipped work. It should have been an automatic termination. But her manager, Rhonda Walker, had decided to give her another chance, and now Boullemet was listening to Daunhauer say how much that had meant to her.
“That gave me so much confidence,” she said.
“It made you feel valuable, didn’t it?” Boullemet said.
“I’ve never felt that in any job.”
“That’s just fabulous,” Boullemet said. “So you’re feeling like you’re in a good place?”
Boullemet gave Daunhauer a long look. For years, she had worked with people with mental illnesses who were trying to go back to work. Things could seem fine, great even, and then the next day, everything would change.
“Just be patient with yourself,” Boullemet said. “We don’t want you to overload yourself.”
Lisa Daunhauer found a job at as a cashier at Walmart, which paid her about $1,000 every month, and she worried because the federal workforce reentry program she participated in, called Ticket to Work, would terminate her disability benefits if she made more than $1,170 per month.
The following day, Daunhauer was sitting alone in her apartment, waiting for her next shift. Every now and again, she reached for her phone to flip off one of the several alarms she always set to make sure she’d never oversleep again.
Her phone went off. This time, it wasn’t a reminder. It was another message about Jacob.
Her former mother-in-law, Betty Daunhauer, was pressuring her for an answer to a text she had sent the day before. “Make the decision on what is best for Jake and stick to it,” Betty had told her. “He is not mature enough to know what is best for him.”
She put down the phone, sat with her hands on her knees, and, feeling a tightness in her chest, thought of Jacob. He had lately taken to wearing a grill of gold teeth, a giant fake gold watch and gold rings, including a diamond one on his pinkie. She knew he was just trying to be like his favorite rappers, but it confused her. And now here were these messages on her phone, asking her to make a decision she feared would only widen the distance between them.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, beginning to cry, and again, “I don’t know what to do.”
Fear and insecurity: These emotions dominated in her life. She had been afraid to be alone, so she married a man she knew she shouldn’t have. She had been afraid of not providing enough for her children, so she ran up so much credit card debt that she had to declare bankruptcy. When her therapist told her about disability, she had been afraid then, too, of what might happen if she didn’t apply. And once she started receiving the payments, and was living alone, she had been afraid that this would be the rest of her life, so she decided to get a job.
Her phone went off again.
“Hello?” she said to Betty, who had agreed to help pay for Jacob’s schooling. “No, you can talk to me now.” She put her hand to her forehead. She gestured with her left hand. She sat cross-legged, ankle jiggling. She tried to steady her voice, to hide that she had been crying, to be strong, but then it was coming back again.
“I just don’t know what to do about Jacob!” she said into the phone. “I don’t even know if I’m going to have a place to live!”
And that was another fear. Walmart, which had raised her hourly wage from $9 to $10, paid her about $1,000 every month. She had recently asked her landlord if that would affect her housing subsidy, but she still didn’t know the answer to that question, or many others. Under the Ticket to Work program, her disability benefits would terminate if she made more than $1,170 per month — “substantial gainful activity” — following the completion of both a nine-month trial work period and a consecutive 36-month period, and who knew if she’d ever make that much at Walmart. Even if she did, or found another job, would it be worth sacrificing the certainty of a government benefit for the uncertainty of the labor force? Where would she find the confidence for that, when she couldn’t even talk to her son’s teachers in person?
“I can’t do face-to-face. I can’t do it!” she told Betty. “After I talked to [one teacher], I felt like a fool. . . . I felt ridiculous. Like I was being mean and ugly. I was upset, and I try not to do that. I still feel bad about myself when I do that. And that’s just me. I guess I just got to work on that.”
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” she said.
“It hurts me,” she said.
“Oh my gosh,” she said.
“I just don’t know,” she said.
She got off the phone, promising Betty she’d talk more the next day, then put her face in her hands and breathed as deeply as she could. She did it again. And again.
“You have to get them before they’re declared disabled. Once you declare them disabled, forget it. You’re climbing a mountain you’ll never get to the top of.”
—Bruce Growick, a retired Ohio State University professor who helped shape the Ticket to Work program
These were the secrets she kept. She never wanted people to know how emotional she became, or all the regrets she had, or that she still bought wine or beer, whatever was cheapest, and alone in her apartment, numbed herself. Or that she might tell people she was “determined” to get off disability, but was in fact silently questioning that determination.
Her phone went off again.
It was an alarm. She had to go to work.
“Is it time?” she said. “Please, don’t tell me it’s time.”
Lisa Daunhauer lets her dog, Macy, into her apartment. Daunhauer, who has three children, is wearing a jersey in support of her 17-year-old son Jacob’s former football team. Her place is too small for both her and Jacob, her youngest child, so he lives with her mother in Roanoke.
At the edge of Roanoke is the Walmart Supercenter, the only Walmart for dozens of miles. On the day the government checks arrive, which was today, people come from all over the counties of Chambers, Clay, Tallapoosa, where about 1 in 6 working-age adults receive disability, and the parking lot fills early, empties late, and employees are told to take spaces far from the store, where Daunhauer now parked, half an hour early.
She stepped out. On top of a blue polo, she pulled on her Walmart vest — “Proud Walmart Associate,” it said — and on top of that, she clipped on her nametag: “Our People Make The . . . Difference.”
She walked toward the entrance, a knot of nerves. She knew that some customers probably would pay with aid from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and that required complex procedures on the cash register. During training, she had been told it was important to get it right. Then less than a week into the job, a manager voided one of her transactions because of an error. She had stood by watching, feeling ashamed and unworthy, and later became so anxious that she accidentally tore another WIC check.
But there was always a chance that today would be different, so she hustled in and assumed her position at cash register number 4, between two disinterested-looking teenage employees.
The store was mobbed. A large woman in pajamas pushed a shirtless toddler in a grocery cart. Some customers tooled about on scooters. A woman’s T-shirt said, “I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables.”
“You having a good day today?” Daunhauer asked the first customer, who handed her four $20 bills for a bill that came to $76.28.
Daunhauer handed him $23 in change.
“I gave you 80,” the customer said, “and you’re giving me a 20.”
Daunhauer laughed nervously.
“Wait a minute,” she said, only now realizing the mistake. “Thank you for being so — oh my goodness. Wow.”
Then he was gone, and Daunhauer, trying to keep her composure, was on to the next customer.
“Would you like everything in a bag?”
And the next.
“Have a good day.”
In came Andre Patterson, one of Boullemet’s other clients, who spent $182.23 of his disability check on groceries and left. In came Daunhauer’s former roommate, who, hugging Daunhauer, said, “I didn’t know you got a job!” In came Jacob, who asked to borrow $20 and said, “Have you been crying?”
“Why?” she said.
“You look like you’ve been crying.”
“Earlier today,” she said quietly, again considering her dramatic mood shifts, which she recently admitted to herself weren’t always “situational,” triggered by a bankruptcy or divorce. It was her. She was disabled, and maybe she should stop trying to convince herself otherwise.
One hour went to the next, the shift passing without a single WIC customer, until the very end of the night, when a well-dressed blond woman laid out peanut butter, eggs, cheese, grapes, cereal and two WIC checks.
Daunhauer slid on her glasses and, squinting, started punching numbers. She looked up. The line behind the woman was getting longer and longer.
“Is it WIC?” a manager called to her.
“It’s WIC,” Daunhauer said, then to herself: “I don’t want to mess it up.”
She tried scanning the checks. It didn’t take. She sighed angrily.
The line was getting longer.
She tried scanning the checks again. But this time, it worked. The receipt came out, and the woman was through.
Nothing had to be voided. She didn’t mess up. She didn’t fail.
“I figured it out,” she yelled to the manager.
She was there again six days later.
It was a bad day.
Boullemet called her twice, but Daunhauer, for the first time, ignored the calls. She had instead been talking to someone at a suicide hotline, who hadn’t been trying to get her through the next six weeks, or off disability, but through the next hour. And now she was looking at the clock, seeing she had to work again in five hours, saying, “I can’t deal with it anymore; I can’t make the decisions that everyone expects of me. . . . Nothing is the way I ever thought it would be.”
Today she wouldn’t find a way to go into Walmart. She would quit. She would decide she wasn’t one of the 3.7 percent who get off disability. For now, she was one of the rest, and she just had to find a way to live with it.