If the Social Security Administration (SSA) denies your disability claim because the agency finds that even though you can't do your past work, you can learn to do other jobs, you'll need to request a hearing before an administrative law judge. At the hearing, you (or your representative) will have the opportunity to cross-examine a vocational expert and show that any job skills you've acquired don't transfer to other work.
Vocational experts (VEs) are often asked to provide the judge with information about the duties and skill levels of different occupations. VEs use a tool called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), which lists what types of job skills are learned for a specific job description.
Based on the DOT description as well as your testimony, the VE will classify your past work as skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled.
Depending on how skilled your past jobs were, the VE might then say that you learned certain skills that transfer to other work. And if you're able to perform other work, then Social Security can't find that you're disabled. But—using the tips below—you can counter the VE's testimony by showing that you don't have the transferable skills from your past work that the VE thinks you have.
Each job in the DOT has a corresponding 9-digit number called a DOT code. DOT codes describe the skill level of that particular job as it's generally performed, so getting the correct DOT code for your past work is very important. Similarly titled jobs might have different DOT codes, and you don't want the VE to think you were doing a more skilled job than you were—because then they might say you could do other work with skills you don't actually have.
For example, if you tell the VE that your past work was as a cashier, the VE has several DOT codes to choose from, including (but not limited to) the following:
As you can see from the descriptions above, the title of "cashier" encompasses a wide variety of work settings, job duties, and skill levels. You can avoid having the VE improperly classify your past work by providing ample details about the specific environment you worked in and the exact tasks you performed on a daily basis.
Claims examiners who review your work history at earlier stages of the disability determination process don't have the opportunity to ask you details about what kinds of jobs you had. They can only work with the information you provided in your work history report, so if the report is incomplete or vague, they'll have to make an educated guess.
At the hearing, the VE will be present (whether in person or on the telephone) and available to answer questions in order to correctly determine the DOT codes of your past jobs.
But even if your past work was properly classified, if you didn't perform certain tasks of the job as they're generally performed—or weren't employed at the job long enough to fully learn the skill set—you didn't gain transferable skills.
In the above example, Curtis was ultimately found to be disabled when the judge considered factors such as his age, education, and job skills. How your prior work and job skills are classified is a key factor when determining whether you're disabled under the medical-vocational grids.
Medical impairments can affect whether your skills are transferable. Even if you learned skills at your old job because you needed them to do certain tasks, if you can't do the tasks anymore, your skills won't transfer to a new job.
For example, carpal tunnel syndrome can greatly limit your ability to type, dial phone numbers, and file, tasks required in most (if not all) administrative jobs. But knowing the skill of how to type isn't going to give you an advantage in getting and keeping an administrative position if you're physically struggling to perform the task. Likewise, Social Security won't consider a photographer with poor vision or a piano tuner with hand tremors to have transferable skills.
Mental limitations can also have an impact on transferable skills. A business executive who experiences cognitive impairments following a traumatic brain injury may not be able to transfer the skills of managing budgets and identifying risks. Or a flight attendant who was diagnosed with major depression might not be able to transfer the skills of handling stress and dealing with the public.
It's extremely helpful to have the assistance of a disability attorney who is trained in effectively cross-examining a VE. Attacking a VE's testimony can be difficult and risky, and—if done incorrectly—can actually harm your case.
To learn more about how your lawyer can cross-examine the vocational expert, see our article on cross-examining the VE at your disability hearing. Your lawyer can also challenge the VE's testimony about the proposed other work by asking about the number of positions available and the requirements of the other work.
Updated August 4, 2023