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September 22, 2023

What is Substantially Gainful Employment?

Last updated on March 19, 2024

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In this post, we’ll look at Substantially Gainful Employment, and see how it applies to disabled veterans. 

We’ll also look at how it’s connected to TDIU, VA protected work environments, and more.

Let’s begin!


What is Substantially Gainful Employment?

Substantially gainful employment is a fancy term for a job that pays above the poverty threshold and is competitive.

The VA says it “suggests a living wage.”

VA Protected Work Environment 

For a job to be competitive, it can’t be in a protected work environment. In other words, it can’t be guaranteed.

A family business is a good example of what the VA considers a protected work environment. If you’re employed by your family’s business, you’re probably not going to be fired, which means the job isn’t competitive.

Protected work environment also means that you’re treated differently than other employees but receive the same pay and benefits. 

For example, you might be excused from certain parts of your job requirements. Or, you might be less productive than other employees without any consequences. You could also be given a pass for certain behavioral issues. 

All of these examples describe a protected work environment.

What is the Poverty Threshold?

Your poverty threshold depends on how many members are in your household and their age. 

Check out the 2022 poverty lines for the U.S. below.

The number in each cell is the annual income poverty line for that family size. A job paying at or above the number is considered substantially gainful employment (if it’s also competitive). A job paying below the number is not.

This information comes from

2022 Census Bureau Poverty Thresholds by Family Size

2022 Census Bureau Poverty Thresholds by Family Size

Figure 1. 2022 Census Bureau Poverty Thresholds by Family Size

Substantially Gainful Employment and TDIU

If you can’t keep substantially gainful employment because of a service-connected disability, you might be eligible for Total Disability Based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU)

TDIU allows the VA to pay veterans at the 100% monthly rate, even if they don’t have a disability rated at 100%.

In addition to being unable to maintain work, to be eligible for TDIU, you also must have:

  • One disability rated at 60% or higher OR,
  • A combined rating of 70% with one disability rated at 40% or higher, AND,
  • You cannot have been dishonorably discharged.

Marginal Employment and TDIU

Marginal employment is any job that doesn’t meet the substantial gainful employment definition. 

Marginal employment doesn’t affect your eligibility for TDIU. In fact, if the VA awards you TDIU, you can still work a marginally gainful job. 

VA FORM 21 4192

Substantially Gainful Employment and VA Form 21-4192

VA Form 21-4192 is a request for employment information. This form gives the VA the information needed to determine if you’re no longer able to maintain substantial gainful employment.

The VA uses the information on VA Form 21-8940 to automatically generate and send VA Form 21-4192 to the employer(s) you worked for during your last year of employment. 

For detailed instructions on completing VA Form 21-4192, check out VA Form 21-4192: A Quick Guide for Veterans.

NOTE: Form 21-8940 is the application for increased VA compensation based on unemployability (i.e., TDIU).

Substantially Gainful Employment and VA Form 21-4140

If you win a TDIU claim, the VA will confirm your employment status on a yearly basis. 

They conduct a wages data match through the Social Security Administration and identify if veterans receiving TDIU earned wages over the poverty line during the previous year. 

Those veterans will be sent VA Form 21-4140. This is an employment questionnaire that determines if you’re still unable to maintain substantially gainful employment.

PRO TIP: The VA doesn’t require you to fill out VA Form 21-4140 once you’ve received TDIU for 20 years or after you turn 70.


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If you can’t work because of a service-connected disability, we want to make sure you get the VA compensation you’re due by law. After all, you earned it!

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Phot of Clay Hutson

Clay Huston

Clay Huston is a former U.S. Army Reserves Blackhawk Pilot and officer. Clay enlisted in the Army in 2013 and was commissioned as a 2LT in 2017 after earning a business degree from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

Since separating from the military, Clay has pursued a career as a writer. He also runs the nonprofit, which fundraises for Children’s Homes in Mexico.

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