At a Social Security disability hearing, you might hear testimony from a vocational expert (VE) stating that somebody with your residual functional capacity could perform your past work (or other types of jobs). Because the agency won't award you disability benefits if you're able to do your past work, you'll want to make sure that the vocational expert knows exactly what you did at your old jobs and avoids relying on jobs that shouldn't count.
At your disability hearing, the administrative law judge will review the work history report that you filed with your initial application for benefits. The judge will then cross-reference the report with information about your earnings from your tax returns to determine your past relevant work. Jobs that count as past relevant work must have been performed:
Classifying your past relevant work properly is important because the judge and VE use it to determine whether you can do that kind of work any more and, if not, whether you have any transferable skills. If the judge isn't clear about your work history, they'll ask you questions about what you did at your jobs in order to make sure that the VE classifies them properly. Based on your testimony, the VE will use a tool called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to assign a job code, exertional level, and skill level to each job that counts as past relevant work.
Proper classification of your past work can make or break your disability claim. You should describe the job duties as accurately as possible so that the judge and VE understand what type of tasks you did and didn't do at work. Include important information about the physical and mental demands of the jobs, such as:
Don't downplay your work responsibilities, but don't exaggerate them, either. And keep in mind that your job title may not provide an accurate description of your day-to-day duties and tasks. What looks good on a resume isn't always going to be helpful for a judge and VE trying to determine whether you could do other work.
Listen closely when the VE describes your past jobs. They should mention a nine-digit code that corresponds to an entry in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (or DOT) that best matches your job description. The DOT consists of short paragraphs describing the physical and mental requirements of almost every job in the United States.
VEs refer to a job description in the DOT as reflective of how that particular job is "generally performed." But you may have had duties and responsibilities at your old jobs that aren't included in the DOT description. The reality of what you did at work—how much weight you lifted or what tools you used—is referred to as how the job is "actually performed."
Ask the VE how the DOT characterizes the job titles or codes of your past jobs. If you notice a discrepancy between how the job was generally and actually performed, you should bring that up. For example, say your job title was "receiving clerk," an occupation described in the DOT under code 222.387-050 as recording deliveries and verifying orders of shipments. But on the job, you were only responsible for unloading packages and signing your name. That means your job as actually performed differs from how it is generally performed (and in this example, you didn't gain any clerical skills).
You should always point out any differences you find in how you actually did your past work and the DOT description. That way, if the VE says you have transferable skills that you can use to do other jobs, you can remind them that you don't actually have the skills described by the DOT. If the judge then denies your claim based on incorrect VE testimony, you have a strong argument on appeal.
In addition to cataloging a job's duties, the DOT also describes the general length of time it takes to learn how to perform the job. The longer it takes to learn how to do a job, the greater number of skills you'll learn at the job, and the likelier you'll be to have learned skills that you could then use elsewhere.
When listening to the VE's testimony, pay particular attention to the job's SVP (for "specific vocational preparation") number. Every job has an SVP on a scale from 1 to 9. Jobs with an SVP number of 3 or higher are considered semi-skilled or skilled, but you can only get skills from those jobs when you've been there long enough to learn how to do them. For example, a job with an SVP of 5 requires about six months to one year of training. If you only worked at that job for three months, you wouldn't have acquired the skills yet—and the VE shouldn't use it as a source of transferable skills.
Jobs that aren't past relevant work shouldn't be used as the basis for a finding that you have transferable skills. Make sure that the VE discounts any jobs where you earned below the substantial gainful activity amount or any work you did on a voluntary basis, including hobbies.
Discussing past relevant work at a disability hearing involves specialized technical language that can be difficult for unrepresented claimants to successfully navigate. Consider getting an experienced disability attorney to represent you. Your lawyer can help you prove that you can't do your past work, challenge the VE's testimony, and rule out other work at your disability hearing.
Updated November 16, 2023