The Social Security Administration recognizes that disability applicants ("claimants") who have little formal education and who've spent their entire working life doing strenuous jobs aren't likely to be able to switch careers once their body "gives out." The agency makes it easier for some applicants who can no longer perform very physically intense work to get disability under the "worn-out worker" rule.
The provision known as the "worn-out worker" rule is established by federal law (20 C.F.R. § 404.1562, § 416.962) and Social Security regulations (SSR 82-63). Under the rule, claimants must meet the following criteria in order to qualify for benefits as a worn-out worker:
Arduous unskilled jobs are usually, but not always, classified as "heavy" or "very heavy" in exertion. Work that's done at the "medium" or "light" exertional levels can also be arduous if the jobs involve a great deal of stamina or repetitive motions (like bending or lifting) at a very rapid pace.
Social Security applies the worn-out worker rule during the last part of the agency's five-step sequential evaluation process. If the claimant qualifies for disability at any earlier point in the evaluation, the agency doesn't have to consider whether the worn-out worker rule applies. But if the claimant doesn't meet a listed impairment or have a residual functional capacity that rules out all work, a claims examiner or hearing judge should consider the worn-out worker rule.
Many of the claimants who could qualify for disability benefits under the worn-out worker rule are instead approved because they meet the requirements for disability under a medical listing or residual functional capacity assessment. In those cases, the claims examiner or judge never considers the worn-out worker rule. But—as the above example illustrates—the rule may help claimants with certain backgrounds who otherwise wouldn't get benefits.
Under the regular disability analysis, claimants who don't meet (or "equal") a listing can only get benefits through a medical-vocational allowance. In order to qualify for disability this way, claimants must show both that:
Many claimants, especially those younger than 50, struggle to demonstrate that they can't do any lighter jobs. And in most cases, applicants without mental limitations who can physically work at the medium exertional level won't qualify for benefits. But claimants who qualify under the worn-out worker rule don't need to establish that they can't perform lighter work. They just need to show that they can't return to their past arduous work.
Although the worn-out worker rule is relatively straightforward, it's not always applied when appropriate. Relatively few disability applicants qualify under the rule, and therefore some claims examiners may not recognize when to use it.
Even when the rule is considered, it might be applied improperly. For example, a claims examiner might incorrectly determine that a claimant's education was not marginal or miscategorize the claimant's past work.
Any mistakes made by a claims examiner can form the basis of an appeal to a hearing judge, who is likely to be more familiar with the rule (and can ask a vocational expert's opinion on whether the claimant's past work qualifies as arduous and unskilled).
If you think you might qualify for benefits under the worn-out worker rule, consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney. The requirements to qualify for Social Security disability benefits are complex, and hiring a qualified disability lawyer who's familiar with the special rules will ensure that your file is being evaluated appropriately.
Updated November 17, 2023