Business & Tech

Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

Government demands back $1,600 it paid to a quadriplegic while he worked as a summer intern

Jon-Michael Sullivan for the Boston Globe
Jared Coppola of North Reading currently lives in Atlanta, Ga. and works as an associate at Situs.

Jared Coppola suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury playing football for St. John’s Prep of Danvers almost 10 years ago, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a self-sufficient, productive citizen.

A quadriplegic who has regained considerable function of his arms and legs, Coppola earned a college degree and then landed a good job with a major international real estate firm in a remarkable journey of perseverance and endurance.

Coppola believes those who have assisted him should be proud of his story, including the Social Security Administration, which oversees billions of dollars in disability benefits — including the $800 a month it paid him until he landed a permanent job in 2015. But instead of applauding Coppola, the government chased him for $1,600, claiming he owed the money because he earned a few thousand dollars as a summer intern in 2014, disqualifying him for benefits during those months. “I don’t know why they came after me so hard,” Coppola said in a phone interview from Atlanta, where he lives. “It just seems unfair to me.”

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Coppola argues the Social Security Administration should have allowed him to keep both his monthly disability benefit and his intern pay, because that’s exactly what the government agency allows other disabled people to do.

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The agency heavily promotes a program it calls “trial work,” which allows most disabled people receiving a monthly check to keep their benefit for up to nine months after getting a job. The agency has apparently learned that cancelling payment immediately discourages some disabled people from testing their ability to work at all.

The cost of temporarily paying benefits to people who are working is offset by the eventual savings that comes when more disabled people conclude they would rather work than collect disability payments, the agency says on its website.

“The program is set up as a means of giving Social Security Disability beneficiaries an incentive to work and to try to eventually get off of Social Security Disability,” the website says.

The “technicality” the Social Security Administration has relied upon to demand a refund has to do with the two distinct programs the agency runs for the disabled. The “trial work” program can be used only by those who receive Social Security Disability Insurance, not those like Coppola who receive Supplemental Security Income.

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The distinction? People who receive Social Security Disability Insurance are tapping into a program they helped fund through deductions from their paychecks, in the same way retirees helped fund their Social Security retirement benefits with deductions. The amount the disabled receive as a benefit depends on how much they paid into the system while they were working before their disability, just like Social Security retirement benefits.

Coppola, injured while still in high school, never had the chance to pay into the system.

The Supplemental Security Income program is designed as a safety net for those who never worked and is funded with general taxes. It is needs-based, meaning anyone who goes to work loses benefits because they are meeting more of their own needs with their own income. A spokesman for the Social Security Administration said he could not comment on Coppola’s case but emphasized that the agency’s goal is to help anyone who is capable of work into the workforce.

For many college students, participating in an internship is a way to burnish a resume and make contacts.

For Coppola, it was something much more. Back in 2014, he wasn’t sure he could make it in the 9-to-5, five-days-a-week, big-city world of corporate finance. Yet that’s what his internship at State Street Bank required.

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Coppola had little doubt he could handle the actual work, which involved tracking client accounts. It was getting to Copley Square every morning from his parents’ house in North Reading in a specially adapted automobile and navigating around the office in a wheelchair that made him view the internship more as a trial run than a resume builder.

With all the extra time he needed to do the kinds of things that others take for granted — dressing, for example — did he have the stamina for this?

“We really didn’t know if Jared could function in that world,” said Skip Coppola, Jared’s father. “That summer internship was the test. And he passed. He proved it to himself and to others.”

Jared Coppola said he’s truly appreciative of the monthly disability check he received, beginning with his injury in 2009 and ending with his employment six years later.

Those payments helped his family — parents, sister, and three brothers — defray hundreds of thousands of dollars in special care, physical therapy, adaptive equipment, and other expenses. Coppola said becoming a taxpayer makes him feel like he’s now giving back.

Yet for the Social Security Administration to deny him his disability benefit while he tested his workplace limits “just seems hypocritical,” Coppola said.

Coppola and his parents fought the administration over the refund for two years. But when it recently threatened to garnish Coppola’s wages, they paid the money.

In one letter to Social Security, Coppola’s parents wrote that it was “trying to screw a hard-working person who has done everything possible to regain his ability to contribute to society.”

Coppola is now thriving as a financial analyst as Situs, which specializes in advising clients on real estate. He’s happy to be in Atlanta, where he spent four months immediately after his injury at the Shepherd Center, which specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

He starts most days working out at the Shepherd Center, a real-life example of someone who has overcome tough odds to live an independent life. Too bad the government can’t see fit to acknowledge that.

An update

In my column last week, Elijah Botkin expressed fear that he would lose the apartment he absolutely loves in the Fenway because he refused to pay an illegal $275 fee demanded by the agent for his landlord.

It was a bold move by the 26-year-old Northeastern grad, who has one foot in the world of high tech (EnerNOC) and one in performance music (Chorus Pro Musica). Landlords and their agents are notorious for exploiting Boston’s extremely tight rental market by springing last-minute “application” and “rental” fees on tenants already committed to moving in.

But the law forbids it. Landlords are allowed to collect only first month’s rent, last month’s rent, one month’s rent as a refundable security deposit, and the cost of a lock and key. Still, most people who are ready to move agree to pay any extra fees that are demanded to avoid a hassle. Not Botkin. He blew the whistle. And now he’s won.

After the column was published, Botkin’s landlord called to apologize and to say he had replaced the agent who had demanded “application” and “rental” fees.

“The landlord said he would be thrilled to keep me on as a tenant,” Botkin told me.

Chalk one up for the good guys.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.