Getting Disability by Arguing You Can't Even Do Sedentary Work

If you have physical or mental limitations that prevent you from doing even sit-down work, you should be approved for disability benefits.

By , Contributing Author

In order to win your claim for Social Security disability, you must prove that your limitations prevent you from doing your past job and any other less demanding work. This can be difficult for younger claimants, because the Social Security Administration often finds most younger people are able to adjust to sit-down jobs, even with an impairment. But if you can prove that you are unable to even do a sit-down job (Social Security calls this "sedentary" work), Social Security will usually approve your claim.

How Social Security Classifies the Physical Requirements of Jobs

To understand how to win by proving you can't do sedentary work, you need to first understand how Social Security classifies jobs based on their physical requirements:

  • Sedentary work takes place mostly sitting down, but allows lifting up to 10 pounds, occasionally carrying objects (like files), and walking and/or standing up to two hours per day.
  • Light work allows lifting up to 20 pounds and frequently lifting and carrying up to 10 pounds, with the majority of the day spent standing or walking.
  • Medium work can require lifting up to 50 pounds and frequently lifting and carrying up to 25 pounds.
  • Heavy work can require lifting up to 100 pounds and frequently lifting and carrying up to 50.
  • Very heavy work can require lifting more than 100 pounds and frequently lifting and carrying up to 50 pounds or more.

Some disability claims examiners or medical consultants use another level -- "less than sedentary" work -- for those who can't do what's required of most sedentary jobs.

    The Importance of RFCs

    To decide what kind of job you can still do despite your impairment, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will prepare a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment for you. An RFC is a detailed report that discusses the work-related limitations that result from your impairment. The goal of the RFC is to determine what the most is you can do on a regular and continual basis (eight hours a day, five days a week, or an equivalent schedule.) The SSA will only use symptoms that are documented in your medical records, so you must provide as much medical information as you can about your impairment when you apply. (For more information, see our article on RFCs).

    If the SSA gives you an RFC for a certain level of work, it means the agency thinks you can do that level of work or less. An RFC for medium work, for example, means that you can medium work, light work, or sedentary work. If your RFC says you can do light work, you can do sedentary work as well. Finally, if your RFC says you can do a sedentary job, the agency will probably conclude there are various sit-down jobs you can do, and your claim will be denied. This is why you must prove that you cannot even perform the requirements of a full range of sedentary work.

    If the SSA says you can do "less than sedentary" work, you should be awarded disability benefits.

    Limitations That Prevent Sedentary Work

    Here are some examples of physical exertional limitations that can result in an RFC that demonstrates you can't do the full range of sedentary work:

    • the inability to lift up to ten pounds
    • the inability to stand or walk for more than a combined total of two hours a day
    • the use of medically required hand-held devices to help walking
    • the need to keep one leg elevated
    • the inability to use an arm because of amputation above the elbow, and
    • the inability to sit for six hours out of an eight hour work-day.

    Here are some examples of non-exertional limitations that can result in an RFC that demonstrates you can't do the full range of sedentary work:

    • the need to alternate sitting and standing throughout the day as needed
    • the need to rest or lie down as needed through the day
    • the significant inability to stoop or bend
    • the reduced ability to use both hands and fingers
    • you need to take frequent sick days
    • the inability to balance even on smooth surfaces
    • certain visual limitations, and
    • the inability to work in noisy environments.

    Having just one of these limitations, however, can still result in an RFC that shows you can do sedentary work (albeit a limited range of sedentary work). This is because with just one of these type of limitations, the vocational expert who testifies at your disability appeal hearing will most likely be able to find jobs he or she that you can still do (for more information, see our article on vocational expert testimony).

    (Note that the grid of medical-vocational rules for sedentary work can't apply if you can do less than a full range of sedentary work, and there is no grid of rules for less than sedentary work.)

    But as limitations are added to your RFC, the vocational expert will likely find that there are increasingly fewer jobs that you can do (the SSA calls this "eroding the occupational base" for sedentary work). The goal is to have the SSA conclude that because of your multiple work-related limitations, the occupational base for sedentary work has been significantly eroded to the point that there are not any sedentary jobs you can do.

    You should ask your doctor whether you have any of the above limitations, and if so, request that he or she fill out an RFC form listing your limitations and submit it to the SSA.

    Limitations That Significantly Erode the Occupational Base

    There are a couple of limitations that, on their own, erode the occupational base to such an extent that the SSA will find you able to do less than sedentary work -- in other words, disabled, if you have even one of them. Those limitations are the complete inability to stoop and the requirement to be allowed to sit or stand as needed.

    The Complete Inability to Stoop

    The SSA should find you disabled if your medical records show you cannot stoop at all because of your impairment. This is because almost all jobs, even sedentary ones, require some ability to stoop and bend. The SSA has concluded that this limitation erodes the occupational base to the extent that a finding of disabled is generally warranted.

    The Need to Sit and Stand as Needed

    The SSA should find you disabled if you can prove that your impairment requires that you have the option to sit or stand as needed at your job. This is because there are few jobs that permit an employee this flexibility, particularly unskilled ones. However, if you have this restriction, the SSA will still need to look at facts of your case, such as how often you would need to change positions, how long you would need to stand, and whether the need to alternate positions could be accommodated by normal work-day breaks.

    How Mental Limitations Can Effect Your Ability to Do Sedentary Work

    If you have trouble following simple directions and getting work done (and there is proof that this is due to a legitimate mental condition), you might not be able to do any sit-down work. Here are some reasons that disability claimants have won their claim based on not being able to do sedentary work.

    • The claimant took prescribed pain medication that substantially interfered with his ability to focus and concentrate.
    • The claimant's condition made it difficult for her to perform even simple, routine, unskilled tasks.
    • The claimant's condition interfered with her ability to complete tasks on time.
    • The claimant had difficulty getting along with others or responding appropriately to authority.

    For more information on how these types of limitations can help your claim, see our article on non-exertional limitations.

    Get an Attorney's Help

    To prove you can't do any sedentary work, you will most likely need the help of a disability attorney; in most cases it's difficult to prove you can't do sedentary work on your own. If you've been denied disability benefits because the SSA says you can do sedentary work, arrange a consultation with a lawyer and ask if the lawyer thinks he or she can prove you can't do sedentary work. If you are a younger claimant, it will be particularly important to contact an attorney who specializes in disability, because the younger you are, the more difficult it can be to get disability benefits.

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