Contingent workers—including independent contractors, consultants and those in temporary, on-call and “gig economy” jobs—would benefit from greater availability of information and assistance with navigating the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) process, suggests research recently conducted by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College.

The CRR study found that workers who have contingency arrangements in their 50s and early 60s are less likely to apply for and be awarded disability benefits than workers who hold more traditional jobs at that age.

CRR found that people who have spent some time doing contingent work between the ages of 50 and 64 are 2.2 percentage points less likely to apply for SSDI benefits than traditional workers. That difference may not seem big, but only 8 percent of all workers in this age group apply for disability, so it’s about a quarter of the applications normally seen, said Matthew S. Rutledge, a co-author of the study and a research economist at CRR.

He and his colleagues also found that contingent workers are about one-third less likely to be awarded disability benefits than never-contingent workers, and that those who are accepted into the program receive $150 less per month in SSDI benefits. That’s because individuals who work on a contingent basis earn $537 less per month over their careers than traditional workers. “This isn’t just a temporary hiccup,” he told Financial Advisor.

CRR used regression models that controlled for gender, race, ethnicity, health and health insurance, education, employment status of a spouse and other factors “to take out a lot of the observable difference between the ever-contingent and the never-contingent,” he said.

Rutledge was a little surprised by the findings on contingency workers. “We were worried they were going to end up on the disability rolls more often,” partly because they’re more likely than traditional workers to self-report a work limitation, he said. Oftentimes, people working on a contingency basis at the ages studied don’t have other job options, have struggled throughout their careers and have gaps in their work history that could be health related, he added.

“If they’re not feeling very well-attached to the labor force, if anything, you might expect them to apply for SSDI more often just as a way to try to make ends meet,” he said.

Rutledge suspects some contingent workers might not find it worth the risk of pulling out of the labor force to pursue lower disability benefits that may not be enough to live on. Contingent employees are also more likely to miss out on SSDI information that bosses and human resource managers share with traditional employees, and they’re less likely to be encouraged to take advantage of the program, he said.

Unlike consultants who are wrapping up a successful career, these individuals are also less likely to be able to afford a financial advisor, Rutledge said, or they may not work with one regularly unless they’re a secondary earner with a higher-earning spouse.

Financial advisors can step in and fill some of the role of a human resource director for individuals who aren’t stably employed, he said. If clients don’t think they’re healthy enough to continue to work, advisors should inform them that SSDI is available up until their full retirement age of 66 or 67, he said. Applicants may not be awarded SSDI, but often they can collect their retirement benefit while waiting to hear, he added.

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