WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Most everyone has called into work sick from time to time, but today, millions of Americans are taking a permanent leave from work with the help of government disability benefits.
Craig Hardison called our newsroom recently, frustrated with his inability to get approved for Social Security Disability Benefits. Hardison walks with a cane. He has COPD, diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and he's medicated for anger management problems.
The 47-year-old used to work construction, but says his health issues have kept him out of work for the last five years. "I'm just not able to climb ladders, and just not able to stand on my feet all day," he said.
Despite all this, Hardison says his application for disability benefits was recently denied for the third time.
He says the stress caused by his health issues and inability to get benefits recently cost him his marriage of 27 years. His lack of income has left him virtually homeless - sleeping on couches of friends and relatives.
"I don't understand why I keep being denied, other people are getting disability that are in a lot better shape than I'm in, and I see them getting it every day," Hardison said.
In our six-county area, 20,285 people are collecting Social Security Disability Benefits, totaling almost $23 million a month. So if they can qualify, why can't Craig Hardison?
Disability attorney Jim Gillespie says many people collecting disability benefits have good days and may appear healthy to strangers, but for practical purposes, they still have trouble holding a job.
"If you have a medical condition, that for whatever reason takes you out of the workplace several days a month…during which you are literally in bed with pain or other symptoms, then you are not employable because no one is going to put up with that," Gillespie explained.
Employable or not, more than 70% of disability applicants in North Carolina are initially denied. Social Security Administrators consider a person's medical ailments and specific symptoms as well as their age, education level, and work experience when deciding if someone qualifies for disability.
Ultimately, it's a judgment call by doctors who examine the applicants and the judges and administrators who review their applications.
Because Hardison is under the age of 50, it makes it harder for him to qualify under Social Security guidelines. But Hardison says that doesn't make much sense. "I don't understand what age has to do with it if you are not in good health."
Attorneys say Hardison may eventually qualify despite his age, but he should prepare for a lengthy appeals process. The average processing time for disability claims in our viewing area is 366 business days.
Gillespie says it's a shame people with legitimate disabilities have to wait so long for help. "This is not welfare, this is not charity. This is a disability insurance policy that people have bought and paid for."
Still, the fiscally conservative John Locke Foundation is concerned by the growing number of people the government is paying not to work. Critics say the current disability structure opens the door for potential abuse as people who lose standard unemployment benefits turn to disability as a secondary safety net.
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