One of the most important steps in the disability determination process is showing the Social Security Administration (SSA) that you can't perform your past relevant work. Unless your condition is severe enough that the SSA finds you medically disabled early in the process, you'll have to prove that you can't currently do any jobs that you've already done before the agency can award you benefits.
Most people are able to show that they can't do their past work because they have severe impairments that prevent them from physically or mentally performing previous jobs. And even non-severe impairments can rule out any work you've done with "unique features," because Social Security must consider the combined effects of all your conditions.
Social Security reviews your work history for the past 15 years and classifies the jobs you've done according to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). The DOT contains a short paragraph outlining the physical and mental duties of nearly every available job in the national economy.
The DOT categorizes jobs according to physical requirements (the "exertional level") and mental requirements (the "skill level"). Exertional levels are defined based on how much weight you need to lift and carry on the job, as well as whether you can do the job seated or standing. Skill levels are determined by whether the job duties are complex or simple.
Social Security will look at the restrictions in your current residual functional capacity (RFC)—the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment—and compare them with the exertional and skill demands of your past work to see if you could do those jobs now.
If you've been denied at the initial and reconsideration stages of the disability determination process—as most applicants are—you'll need to request a hearing in front of an administrative law judge to prove that you can't do your past work.
The easiest way to show that you can't do your past work is to have an RFC that rules out activities at the exertional or skill level of your old jobs. For example, if you used to move cargo weighing over 50 pounds and your RFC restricts you from lifting more than 20 pounds, you won't be able to return to cargo handling. Or, if your RFC limits you to simple tasks and your past work was as an accountant, that job is eliminated.
But job demands and work histories are frequently more complicated. Non-exertional limitations, like not being able to stoop or crouch, can still rule out your past work even if it's within your exertional or skill level. At a disability hearing, judges usually need the help of a vocational expert ("VE") to determine whether you can do your past work. The VE provides detailed information about job duties, so their testimony plays an important role at your hearing.
The VE has access to several tools that rely on the DOT job classifications (a 9-digit number called a "DOT code") to decide whether you can do any of the jobs you've done in the past. Normally, the VE will review your work history report before the hearing and look up the DOT codes that correspond to your jobs. But the DOT codes don't always accurately reflect the day-to-day duties of your work.
You can avoid having the VE mischaracterize your past work by comprehensively filling out your work history report and providing specific details during the hearing when the VE asks you what you did at your jobs. Don't rely on your job title to provide the necessary information. The most correct DOT code for your past work can conflict with what you put on your resume, sometimes significantly.
Not every job fits exactly in line with the DOT description. When this happens, VEs will draw a distinction between the job as generally performed according to the DOT and as actually performed based on your experience of doing the job. Here's an example:
In the above example, because the claimant's job as a hardware store cashier was actually performed at a greater exertional level than a cashier's job is generally performed, the claimant will have an easier time proving that he can't do his past work—as he needs to show that he can't lift 50 pounds instead of 20 pounds.
Even minor health conditions can prevent you from doing any jobs that you performed in an unusual setting. If your past jobs required you to perform very specialized tasks or work in an uncommon environment (in other words, your job had unique features), you can show that an otherwise non-severe impairment prevents you from doing your past work. (Social Security Ruling 86-8.)
Non-severe impairments have only a mild effect on your ability to work in general, but they can have a big impact on your ability to do past jobs with unique features. Here are some examples to illustrate how jobs with unique features could be ruled out:
If you're over 50 and unable to perform your past work, you might have an easier time qualifying for disability under the medical-vocational grid rules, so make sure the ALJ includes any non-severe impairments in your RFC, and ask the VE to discuss whether they rule out your past jobs.
Some claimants were only able to do their past work because they had a boss or manager who would accommodate their health condition. For example, if your boss let you work remotely so that you could recline as needed to relieve back pain, let the VE know. Not all managers will provide special accommodations, and the VE can't assume that any hypothetical other bosses would be as flexible.
Asking a vocational expert the proper questions about past work can be challenging without legal representation. Consider contacting an experienced disability attorney or advocate who can help you build your case. Your attorney can:
Updated February 16, 2023