Qualifying for Disability Because of Reduced Productivity

If you are 15-20% less productive than you used to be due to your condition, bringing a lawyer to your hearing can help you prove you should get disability benefits.

By , Contributing Author
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To qualify for disability benefits, you must prove that your medical condition prevents you from being able to work a full-time job. Specifically, to deny you benefits, the Social Security Administration ("Social Security") needs to show that you're able to do substantial work on a continuous and sustained basis. One way you can show that you can't do this is to prove that your medical condition has reduced your productivity by at least 15% of the acceptable level. If you can only do 85% of the work that others can do, you would have a hard time keeping a job.

When Social Security Considers Vocational Factors

If Social Security denied you benefits because you didn't meet the criteria in one of its disability listings, and the agency named some jobs that you should still be able to do, you can appeal that denial. At your appeal hearing, you or your lawyer can raise the issue of your productivity. Here's how that would work.

Social Security uses a five-step evaluation process to decide if you're disabled. At step four, Social Security looks at your prior work and your current capabilities to see if you can do any of the jobs you worked at over the last 15 years. At step five, the agency tries to identify other work that you can do given your past job skills, your age, and your physical and mental limitations.

At either step, working unproductively or inefficiently can limit the amount of jobs you can do on a continued and sustained basis. At your hearing, the vocational expert (VE) hired by Social Security will be asked to testify as to your work ability. You or your lawyer can ask the VE whether someone who can only do 80% or 85% of the work that others can do would be able to keep a job. The VE will likely say no, someone with that kind of limitation would be unemployable. (For more information on VEs, see our article on why the vocational expert's testimony is important.)

How Do You Prove You Have Reduced Productivity?

You can show that you're less productive at work than others by showing that you have problems with:

  • concentration, persistence, and pace
  • the side effects of medication, or
  • frequent illnesses or absenteeism.

Concentration, Persistence, and Pace

Social Security uses the terms "concentration, persistence, and pace" to describe a person's ability to focus well enough to do his or her work in a normal amount of time. Concentration is the ability to focus, persistence is being to stick with a task for a couple of hours without a break, and pace means that you're able to keep up. If you're easily distracted, you're slower at completing activities, or you need frequent breaks (due to pain, needing to change your position, or using the bathroom), Social Security would consider you less unproductive than others.

People with disabilities frequently experience trouble with concentration, persistence, and/or pace because of the mental symptoms, such as pain and fatigue, related to their medical condition. Certain conditions can cause these issues, or they can be side effects of medications required to treat the impairment. Significant problems with concentration, persistence, and pace invariably affect productivity; so if you can prove your productivity would be reduced by at least 15% of the normal rate, you will most likely be approved.

Here are some examples:

  • A claimant (applicant) filed for disability because of severe bipolar depression and anxiety. Despite following his prescribed treatment, the claimant's ability to concentrate was significantly impaired by his illness and he made frequent mistakes in his work. The result was that he could only stay on task about 80% of the time, and that he often had to spend time correcting his errors. At his hearing, the claimant's attorney presented objective evidence that described his symptoms and also provided a statement from the claimant's employer about the claimant's reduced abilities. The attorney then asked the vocational expert whether a person with these symptoms, whose productivity was reduced by 20%, would be employable. The VE testified that no, such a person would not be able to work. Social Security approved the claim.
  • A claimant filed for disability due to a rare uterine disorder that caused excessive chronic bleeding. She was unable to undergo a hysterectomy and frequently required blood transfusions. Her severe anemia caused significant fatigue. Additionally, her condition required that the claimant spend excessive time away from her workstation throughout the day. As a result, the claimant's productivity rate was significantly reduced. At her hearing, the claimant's attorney produced supportive medical records and evidence of her work history. The attorney then asked the VE whether a claimant, with symptoms such as these and a productivity level that was reduced by 15%, would be able to keep a job. The VE testified that such a claimant would not be employable. Social Security approved the claim.

Side Effects From Medication

Side effects from medication can also interfere with your productivity. If your medication causes significant side effects, report them to your doctor so that they can be recorded in your medical file.

Here is an example of a claimant who was approved based on how her medication impacted her work productivity.

  • A claimant filed for disability due to hepatitis C. The only treatment available was interferon, a potent medication known for its serious disruptive side effects. The interferon caused the claimant to experience significant fatigue, irritability, and insomnia. These side effects caused the claimant to frequently fall behind at work and triggered conflicts in her workplace that significantly interrupted her workday. The claimant's symptoms were clearly documented in her medical records. At her hearing, the claimant's attorney questioned the vocational expert about the claimant's symptoms and asked whether a person would be able to work if the symptoms reduced her productivity by 15%. The VE testified that a 15% reduction in productivity would make it impossible for the claimant to work. The claimant's attorney presented evidence that the claimant's productivity was significantly decreased, and Social Security approved her claim.

Note that you and your doctor must first make an effort to find alternative medications with fewer side effects before you apply for disability. Otherwise, Social Security may conclude that the side effects of your medication are preventable and the agency can disregard how they affect you.

For more information on how non-exertional limitations like fatigue, the inability to keep up, and the inability to focus can affect your claim for disability, see our article on combining exertional and non-exertional limitations.

Reliability and Absenteeism

Disabilities often result in frequent absenteeism from the workplace. You may miss work because of your need to see doctors or attend therapies. Or, you might need to take two or three sick days a month, or even be hospitalized occasionally, because of the symptoms of the medical condition itself. If your disability leads to an absenteeism rate of 10% or more (about two days per month for most workers), and Social Security sees your absence as reasonable and necessary, the judge will likely approve your claim for disability—if your lawyer asks the right questions at your hearing.

Getting Help From a Legal Expert

Proving that your disability reduces your workplace efficiency by at least 15% can be very difficult; however, it can be an important tactic to help win your claim. If you're headed to a hearing and you'd like to raise your lack of productivity, you should hire an experienced disability attorney to represent you at the hearing.

If you'd like to discuss your case and see if reduced productivity is a good option to help you win your claim, click for a free consultation with a legal professional.

Updated November 30, 2021

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