Your Work History: Why It's Important for Social Security Disability

Your work history determines the requirements of your old job (and whether you can do it) and whether you have transferable skills to work at a new job.

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Many people who apply for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) don’t realize how important their work history is to their chances of being awarded benefits. SSDI and SSI are awarded to those with a severe, ongoing medical condition that prevents them from performing their current job, a past job, or any other work to which they may be suited. A disability claimant’s work history is critical in determining his or her ability to maintain gainful employment.

Why Are Your Prior Jobs and Job Skills Important?

Disability decisions are based upon two things: information contained in a claimant’s medical records and the claimant’s work history. After finding that a disability claimant (applicant) doesn't have a medical condition that’s so severe it matches an official SSA impairment listing, the Social Security disability claims examiner moves on to the next step in the analysis.

The disability examiner, usually with the help of a medical consultant, then reviews a claimant’s medical records to determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC). An RFC assessment specifies activities that the claimant can and cannot perform because of the claimant’s medical impairment. The examiner then analyzes whether your RFC allows you to return to your prior job or any relevant jobs you've done in the past 15 years, or whether you have job skills that can transfer to another type of job.

Does Your RFC Allow You to Do Past Work?

The claims examiner will look closely at the requirements of your prior jobs, to see if you should be able to return to one of them, given your RFC. The examiner needs to know the details of the prior work you’ve done to determine if you can return to it, or if your impairment precludes you from doing the job. If the examiner doesn’t know the true requirements of the job, the examiner might think you’re able to do the job when you’re not. For example, if your job required that you had to occasionally lift 50 pounds, but you’ve been given a “light RFC” due to a back injury, the examiner should find that you can’t go back to the past work. But if the examiner doesn’t know that your prior job required you to lift 50 pounds occasionally, the examiner could say that you should be able to return to your prior job, and can deny you benefits on that basis. (Learn how to prove you can't do your past work due to your RFC.)

Is There Any Work You Could Do Using Your Prior Job Skills, With Your RFC?

The disability examiner will next use the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) medical-vocational guidelines to see if you should be expected to do other work. The medical-vocational guidelines set out a grid that states when a claimant is disabled or not disabled, given his or her age, education, prior skills, and functional limitations (RFC). 

The examiner must know what job skills you learned in prior jobs to determine if your skills could be transferred to another job in the national economy. Without a detailed work history, a disability examiner has to guess at the tasks associated with prior jobs. For example, if you were an administrative assistant 10 years ago, the examiner could assume that you are familiar with certain scheduling or spreadsheet programs, that you can type 65 wpm, and that you can answer multi-line phones. The examiner could find other jobs that require these skills and “send” you to that work (meaning that you would be denied benefits because that type of job is hypothetically available). So you don’t want the examiner to assume you have skills you don’t. If you don’t actually have those skills, the jobs the SSA could send you to may be much more limited. (Learn how to prove you don't have the job skills for other work.)

What Work History Information Should You Give to SSA?

Those who apply for disability benefits can improve their chances of approval by providing a solid work history to the claims representative at the time of their initial interview, detailing their job duties. 

Also be sure to provide accurate contact information for past supervisors so that the examiner can call them, if necessary, to discuss the demands of a particular position you have listed on your work history, as well any specific skill sets you may or may not have acquired. 

Do the Medical-Vocational Guidelines Help?

The medical-vocational rules, which take into account prior job skills and whether they are transferable, are supposed to make the disability determination process fairer. Whether or not they succeed in doing this is debatable. Unfortunately, despite the existence of the medical-vocational grid, the decision to approve or deny disability is largely subjective; a disability examiner will take information from the grid and match it up to a claimant’s work history, then decide if there are jobs that the examiner “feels” the claimant can still do.

Plus, while the guidelines make disability decisions more uniform across the states, they do not guarantee that the job a disability examiner says a claimant is capable of performing is actually available in his or her area. Still, having medical vocational guidelines in place allows an administrative law judge at an appeal hearing to overturn a claim examiner's opinion based on the guidelines, if appropriate.

By: Tim Moore, former disability claims examiner for Social Security

Updated by: Leah Torres

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