Light Work, Sedentary Work, and Mental Limitations: Social Security Disability

How a restriction to light or sedentary work can help you get disability benefits if you also have a mental or emotional issue.

The vocational guidelines for Social Security disability define work activity as medium, light, or sedentary. This is how these work activity levels are defined.

  • Sedentary work means that you are able to sit for up to 6 hours in an 8 hour day and lift up to 10 lbs. occasionally during a day
  • Light work means that you can stand and walk for up to 6 hours in an 8 hour day and lift 10 lbs. frequently and 20 lbs. occasionally
  • Medium work means that you can stand and walk for up to 6 hours in an 8 hour day and lift 25 lbs. frequently and 50 lbs. occasionally.

Social Security medical consultants assign an applicant a residual functional capacity (RFC) level of sedentary, light, or medium work, and then disability claims examiners use the RFC to see if the applicant can be expected to work by using a vocational grid pubished by Social Security. If a disability applicant's characteristics fit within a grid rule (for instance, age 55, sedentary RFC, history of unskilled work), the applicant will be found disabled through a "medical-vocational allowance." This is the way applicants whose condition doesn't meet or equal an impairment listing can be approved for benefits. (For more information on the use of the grid rules, see our article on using the medical-vocational grids.)

If the grid rules say that an applicant should not be disabled (for instance, age 45, sedentary work), disability benefits will generally be denied. But for individuals who also have mental impairments, cognitive, psychiatric, or emotional limitations can reduce the amount of jobs the applicant can do, when combined with a physical RFC. As a result, Social Security is required to consider how these applicants' mental limitations limit their potential to do unskilled work.

Let's look at how this plays out for someone with an RFC for sedentary work.

Grid Rules for Sedentary Work

The following information is just a sample of the vocational grid rules for those with sedentary RFCs.

    Rule 201.01

  • Age: 55+
  • Education: Didn't graduate from high school
  • Work History: Unskilled work or no work within last 15 years
  • Equals finding of: Disabled

    Rule 201.02

  • Age: 55+
  • Education: Didn't graduate from high school  
  • Work History: Skilled or semi-skilled work, but skills not transferable
  • Equals finding of: Disabled

    Rule 201.03

  • Age: 55+
  • Education: Didn't graduate from high school
  • Work History: Skilled or semi-skilled work with skills that could transferred to other work
  • Equals finding of: Not Disabled

    Rule 201.04

  • Age: 55+
  • Education: HS grad or more
  • Work History: Unskilled work or no work within last 15 years
  • Equals finding of: Disabled 

As you can see from the above grid rules, an individual'€™s age, education, work skills, and the transferability of work skills are important to determining when an individual is disabled through a medical-vocational allowance.

Social Security's Analysis

Disability claims examiners look at claimants' past work histories to see the levels of work they have done. The examiners have to prove that a claimant is unable to perform their least exertional work from their past work history. For example, if a claimant had a desk job ten years ago, and then a construction job, if the claimant could go back to a desk job, he or she won't qualify for disability benefits.

If a claimant's least exertional work was sedentary or light work, it can be difficult to receive a medical-vocational allowance, especially for those individuals who have completed high school or more and have worked in skilled jobs that have transferable skills. That's because there are many sedentary and light jobs available that could be suitable for the claimant. It's especially difficult for an individual who is capable of a full range of sedentary or light work to be found disabled if they are under the age of 55, particularly if they performed a sedentary or light job in their past work.

Considerations That Can Challenge a Grid Result

How can an individual with an education of high school or above, with a history of light or sedentary job requirements and work skills that could be considered transferable, be approved for disability benefits? There are factors that might negate the transferability of job skills for an individual. For instance, even with a history of skilled work, having some degree of mental limitation can render your job skills non-transferable to other work activity. (See our article on the transferability of work skills.)

How can an applicant who's under 50, with a history of light or sedentary jobs be approved for disability benefits? If mental limitations make the person unable to follow directions to do simple, routine, unskilled tasks, to get along with others, or to attend work regularly, Social Security might rule that there are no jobs the person can do. For more information, see our article on how non-exertional limitations can change a disability denial.

If, in addition to a physical condition, you suffer from depression, anxiety, or some other mental condition that causes you to be unable to concentrate or come to work on a regular basis, or causes memory problems that make it difficult for you to complete tasks, it could get you approved for disability if the Social Security Administration has given you a sedentary or light residual functional capacity (RFC) rating for your physical condition. For more information, see our article on how moderate mental issues can help you get disability.

In addition, there are certain physical limitations that can help you prove that you can't do the full range of sedentary work, such as not being able to stoop or needing frequent rest breaks. For more information, see our article on being able to do "less than sedentary" work.

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