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 , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law
Updated 7/06/2023

In order to win your claim for Social Security disability, you must prove that your functional limitations prevent you from doing your past job and any other less demanding work. This can be difficult for claimants younger than 50 years old, because the Social Security Administration (SSA) often finds most younger people are able to adjust to sit-down jobs, even with an impairment. But if you can prove that you're unable to even do a sit-down job—what Social Security calls "sedentary" work—the SSA will usually approve your claim.

How Social Security Classifies the Physical Requirements of Jobs

To understand how to get disability by proving you can't do sedentary work, you need to first understand how Social Security classifies jobs based on their physical requirements ("exertional level").

  • Sedentary work takes place mostly sitting down, but allows lifting up to 10 pounds, occasionally carrying objects (like files), and walking 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.

As you can see above, exertional levels are primarily defined by how much weight you need to be able to lift and how long you can be on your feet in order to perform the job. 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, Social Security 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.

Social Security's goal in assessing your RFC is to determine the most you can do on a regular and sustained basis—eight hours a day, five days a week, 40 hours a month (or an equivalent schedule). The SSA only uses symptoms that are documented in your medical records when deciding your RFC, so you must provide as much medical information as you can about your impairments when you apply.

If your RFC contains a restriction for a certain exertional level, it means the SSA thinks you can do jobs at that level of work or less. For example, if you have an RFC for medium work, that means the agency thinks you can do jobs classified as medium work, light work, or sedentary work. Likewise, if your RFC says you can do light work, the SSA assumes that you can do sedentary work as well.

Finally, if your RFC says you can do a sedentary job, the agency will probably conclude that you can do various sit-down jobs, and your claim will be denied. This is why you must prove that you can't even perform the requirements of a full range of sedentary work. Once the SSA determines that you can do "less than sedentary" work, you should be awarded disability benefits.

Limitations That Prevent Sedentary Work

Many disability applicants have limitations that prevent them from keeping up with the physical and mental demands of even sedentary work. If you can show that you have additional restrictions—documented in your medical records—in your RFC that rule out sedentary work, Social Security should find you disabled.

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 workday.

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 throughout the day
  • the significant inability to stoop or bend
  • the reduced ability to use both hands and fingers
  • the need to take frequent sick days
  • the inability to balance even on smooth surfaces
  • the inability to see certain objects, and
  • the inability to work in noisy environments.

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

Keep in mind that having these limitations can still result in an RFC that shows you can do sedentary work, even if it rules out some sedentary jobs. This is because if you only have one of these types of limitations—or if you have several kinds of limitations, but none of them are very restrictive—the vocational expert who testifies at your disability appeal hearing will most likely be able to find jobs that you can still do.

But as more restrictions are added to your RFC, the vocational expert will likely find that there are increasingly fewer jobs that you can do. (In Social Security lingo, this is called "eroding the occupational base" for sedentary work). Your goal is to have the SSA determine that because of your work-related limitations, the occupational base for sedentary work has been "significantly eroded," to the point that no sedentary jobs exist that you can do.

Limitations That Significantly Erode the Occupational Base

Even the easiest sedentary jobs have basic physical demands, such as being able to stoop (defined as bending the body downward and forward by bending the spine at the waist) and using your hands to move objects. Likewise, even unskilled jobs need employees who can maintain attendance and get tasks completed within a reasonable time.

If you can show that you're unable to complete these essential functions regularly, you can significantly erode the sedentary occupational base and qualify for disability. Here are some common limitations that claimants have used successfully to show they can't do sedentary work.

Physical Limitations That Erode Sedentary Jobs

RFCs usually contain restrictions on how long you can perform physical tasks such as crouching, bending, kneeling, reaching, grasping, or twisting. If your RFC limits you to "constant" (more than 2/3 of the day) or "frequent" (between 1/3 and 2/3 of the day) performance of an activity, it's unlikely that that particular limitation will erode all jobs.

But if you're limited to "occasional" (less than 1/3 of the day) or "rare" (basically nonexistent) performance of an activity, Social Security is much more likely to find that no jobs are available for you to perform. Examples include:

  • occasional fine manipulation (using the hands to type and touch objects) of the dominant hand
  • occasional gross manipulation (using the hands to grasp and hold objects) of the dominant hand, and
  • occasional omnidirectional (meaning overhead, in front of, and down) reaching in both arms.

"Postural" restrictions (such as bending, kneeling, or crouching) aren't usually enough to rule out sedentary jobs, because those jobs are mostly performed in a seated position without the need for a lot of body movement. But if you need to shift positions between sitting and standing (or sitting and lying down), you can rule out sit-down jobs that require you to remain mostly seated. Examples include:

  • frequent or constant switching positions between sitting and standing
  • a complete inability to stoop
  • the occasional need to elevate your legs above waist level, and
  • the occasional need to recline or lay down.

The results may vary depending on the testimony of the vocational expert at your hearing, but few employers will tolerate a sedentary employee who is unable to use their hands in any meaningful way or who can't sit in an upright position for most of the workday.

How Mental Limitations Can Affect Your Ability to Do Sedentary Work

If you have trouble following simple directions and getting work done due to a mental health condition, medication side effects, or chronic pain, you might not be able to do any sit-down work (or work at any exertional level). Employers don't expect all employees to have perfect attendance or work at 100% effectiveness every day, but if you're missing too much work or not finishing simple job tasks, your RFC will rule out sedentary work. Examples include:

  • a limitation that you would be "off-task" 20% of the day due to trouble focusing
  • a limitation that you would miss more than two days of work per month due to pain
  • a limitation that you wouldn't be able to perform even simple, repetitive, routine tasks, and
  • a limitation to only rare, superficial interactions with your coworkers and supervisors, and no contact with the general public.

For more information on how the above physical and mental limitations can help your claim, see our articles on non-exertional limitations and reduced productivity.

Get an Attorney's Help

In most cases, it's difficult to prove you can't do sedentary work on your own. You'll most likely need the help of a disability attorney.

If you've been denied disability benefits because the SSA says you can do sedentary work, arrange a consultation with a lawyer and ask how to prove you can't do sedentary work. Younger claimants especially will find it particularly important to contact a disability attorney, because the younger you are, the more difficult it can be to get disability benefits.

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