How the Medical-Vocational Grid Rules Are Used to Determine Disability

Social Security uses a grid of medical-vocational rules to determine whether applicants over 50 should be found disabled.

By , Contributing Author | Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney
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Winning a claim for disability becomes easier the older you get. The Social Security Administration (SSA) acknowledges the fact that transitioning successfully to a new workplace or field (making a "vocational adjustment") is more difficult for older workers than for younger workers.

The SSA has a set of guidelines known as the "medical-vocational grid" that takes certain work-related factors into consideration to help determine whether claimants (applicants) over the age of 50 are disabled. If you're over 50, knowing what factors the SSA looks at can help you win your claim for benefits.

What Are the Grid Rules?

Social Security doesn't expect people who are getting close to full retirement age to switch careers or start over at the bottom of the career ladder. The grid rules are a way for the SSA to find disability applicants over the age of 50 disabled even if they might be able to perform other work.

The grid takes into account the following factors:

  • your age
  • your education
  • the skill level of your past work
  • whether you could use any skills from your past work at another job, and
  • your residual functional capacity (RFC).

Below is a more in-depth look into these factors and how the SSA applies them in the grid.

Age

Social Security classifies disability applicants according to how old they are. The agency has four age categories for adult applicants:

  • younger individual (ages 18-49)
  • closely approaching advanced age (ages 50-54)
  • advanced age (ages 55-60), and
  • closely approaching retirement age (ages 60-64).

The older you are, the more likely you are to be found disabled according to the grid. Most younger individuals won't be able to use the grid rules to qualify for benefits.

Education

The SSA divides educational levels into the following categories for the purpose of the grid:

  • unable to read or write (illiterate)
  • marginal education (6th grade and below)
  • limited education or less (7th through 11th grade)
  • high school graduate or more (including GEDs), and
  • recent, specialized training for a skilled job (such as nursing school).

Social Security refers to the last category as "education providing direct entry into skilled work." When applying the grid rules, this category doesn't come up often, but it can trip up claimants who have gotten training for a specific career within the past five years.

Past Work Experience

Social Security will classify your past work according to skill level. Skill level is mostly determined by how long it takes to learn how to do the job and how complicated the job tasks are. The three skill levels the agency recognizes are:

  • skilled
  • semi-skilled, and
  • unskilled.

Skilled jobs involve following complex instructions (such as a blueprint), working closely with others, and using abstract thinking. These jobs usually require at least one year of training or education. Examples include plumbers, administrative assistants, and real estate agents.

Semi-skilled jobs involve detailed—but not complex—instructions. These jobs can be learned in a few months, and they tend to require manual dexterity and coordination. Examples include servers, cashiers, and security guards.

Unskilled jobs involve simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. These jobs can be learned in one month or less. They can be easy, or very physically demanding. Examples include farm laborers, small parts assemblers, and laundry room attendants.

Transferability of Skills

If your past work experience was skilled or semi-skilled, the SSA will want to see if you can use any of those skills at a different job. Skills that you learned at one job that you can use in another are called transferable skills.

Examples of transferable skills include:

  • using basic software
  • managing money
  • keeping track of stock inventory, and
  • filing and data entry.

Some skills are so tied to the physical nature of the job where you learned them that you can't use them to do a different type of work. Social Security considers these skills to be "not transferable." Depending on your residual functional capacity, not having transferable skills can be enough for the agency to find you disabled.

Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)

Your RFC is Social Security's determination of the most you can do, physically and mentally, in a work setting. The RFC assessment will frequently contain restrictions on how much weight you can lift and how long you can be on your feet for. The SSA refers to these restrictions as your exertional level. The five exertional levels are defined below.

  • Sedentary work. You can lift up to 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently, and you can sit for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Light work. You can lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and you can stand and walk for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Medium work. You can lift up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, and you can stand and walk for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Heavy work. You can lift up to 100 pounds occasionally and 50 pounds frequently, and you can stand and walk for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Very heavy work. You can lift more than 100 pounds occasionally and 50 pounds frequently, and you can stand and walk for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.

Most disability applicants are assigned sedentary, light, or medium RFCs. There is a different grid, with different rules, for each of these RFC levels.

Your RFC might also contain non-exertional limitations you have that affect the types of jobs you can perform. Examples of non-exertional limitations include restrictions on how long you can use your hands to grasp objects, or whether you can interact with the general public.

For more information, see our articles on RFCs and non-exertional limitations.

How Social Security Uses the Grid Rules

To see how the SSA might decide your case, first find the table for your age group under the exertional level of your RFC. Next, find the row that describes your education level and previous work experience. The third column shows the decision the SSA will make based on those two factors.

For example, if you're between the ages of 55-59 and have an RFC for sedentary work, below are the first few rows of the grid rules that could apply.

Education Previous Work Experience Decision
Limited or less Unskilled or none Disabled
Limited or less Skills that are not transferable Disabled
Limited or less Skills that are transferable Not disabled

If you have an 8th-grade ("limited") education and your past jobs were all unskilled, Social Security will find you disabled.

To see all of the grid rules, refer to our articles on the grid for your age group. If you're within six months of the next age group, you might want to read the article for that age group as well.

RFCs for Heavy or Very Heavy Work

If Social Security thinks you have the residual functional capacity to perform the strenuous demands of heavy or very heavy work, you won't be able to use the grid rules to get disability benefits. You'll have to show that you have non-exertional limitations that prevent you from working jobs at any exertional level.

Ways to Win Disability Outside of the Grid Rules

Even if the grid rules don't call for a finding of disability, you can still qualify for benefits if you can show that no jobs exist that you can do despite your limitations. (This is the most common way that the SSA awards benefits to people under the age of 50.)

Here are several ways for you to show the agency that you can't do any jobs:

  • You physically can't perform even sedentary work. Sit-down jobs require you to be able to lift 10 pounds and be on your feet for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. If you can't lift more than 5 pounds, or can only stand and walk for 1 hour total, the SSA will find you disabled.
  • You have non-exertional limitations that eliminate all work. If you can only use your hands for half of the day due to carpal tunnel syndrome, or you need to elevate your legs every 15 minutes to relieve back pain, the agency will likely find that no jobs exist in significant numbers that you can perform.
  • You're unable to meet the demands of competitive employment. Taking too much time off or being unable to concentrate on your job tasks due to your medical condition can mean that the SSA doesn't think any employer would hire you for full-time work.

Getting Help With Your Disability Claim

The grid rules can frequently help older people win their disability claims, but understanding the nuances of how Social Security uses the grid can be confusing. An experienced disability representative can help determine where you fall within the grid and what your options are.

To find a disability attorney in your area, use our disability attorney locator tool.

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