Can't Work But Were Denied Disability? Good Reasons You're Unable to Work

Make sure you know which reasons for not being able to work are good to talk about at your disability hearing.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

When you submit your application for disability benefits, you're signaling to the Social Security Administration (SSA) that you don't think that you can work. Many people realize that they can't work anymore after leaving or being let go from a previous job, so receiving a denial from the SSA can add an extra level of disappointment during an already stressful time.

Few people are approved at the initial application stage, so don't let a denial stop you if you can't work. You can ask the agency to reconsider your initial denial, and if you still aren't awarded disability benefits, you can request a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). Most disability applicants who are approved for benefits win at the hearing level.

Reasons Social Security Denied Your Claim

Reading the personalized disability explanation that the SSA sends you with your denial letter can help you better understand why you were denied and make your case stronger on appeal. You can also benefit from obtaining your disability file and closely reading the "technical rationale" behind your denial. (Even if you don't understand every term, you can see the step-by-step reasoning the agency used and get a general sense of why your claim was denied.)

Some of the common reasons the agency will deny a claim include:

  • you don't meet the non-medical requirements for a disability program
  • you don't have enough medical evidence, and
  • Social Security thinks you can work at a less demanding job.

The last reason is perhaps the most frequent rationale the agency uses when a disability application is denied. During a disability hearing, ALJs will often ask you a question such as "Tell me why you can't work at any job." Answering with good, relevant reasons why you can't work at an easier, less stressful job is key to increasing your chances of getting benefits.

Good Reasons Why You Can't Work

Disability benefits are awarded to people who can't, due to physical or mental limitations, return to any jobs they've had in the past or switch to any other jobs in the national economy. An ALJ will review your medical records for evidence of limitations that restrict the types of jobs you can do, and will use these limitations to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC).

Your RFC is a list of restrictions that take into account what you can and can't do in a work setting. Any restriction you have that's supported by medical evidence is considered a "good reason" why you can't do a certain job. If your restrictions rule out all jobs, the ALJ can find you disabled.

Examples of restrictions that the ALJ will consider good reasons why you can't work include:

  • You physically can't perform even sedentary work. The least physically demanding, sit-down jobs require you to be on your feet for 2 hours out of an 8-hour work day and to be able to lift 10 pounds. If you can't lift more than 5 pounds, or can only stand and walk for 1 hour total, the ALJ will find you disabled.
  • The medical-vocational grid rules state that you're disabled. If you're over age 50, in addition to your RFC, the ALJ will also consider your age and whether you have any transferable skills from your past work to determine if you can do any work. For more information, see our article on how the ALJ applies the grid rules.
  • You have non-exertional limitations that rule out all work. Exertional limitations are restrictions on how much weight you can lift and carry, but RFC restrictions can include additional limitations on how long you can use your hands or what postural movements you can't do. Few, if any, jobs exist that don't need you to be able to hold objects, for example.
  • You're unable to "meet the demands of competitive employment." Every job, no matter how easy or difficult, still requires you to show up regularly and complete the work duties on time. If you're taking too much time off or can't concentrate on your job tasks, the ALJ will likely find that no employer would hire you full-time.

Reasons You Can't Work That the Judge Won't Consider

Social Security doesn't usually take into consideration the realities of employment when determining if you're disabled. Avoid talking about the following barriers to employment:

  • No current job openings exist for the jobs you can do.
  • The only available jobs would require you to move.
  • You don't think any employer would hire you.
  • You don't think you could pass a company physical.
  • The jobs wouldn't pay you as much money as you're used to.
  • You don't have access to childcare.
  • You don't have a car or driver's license to get to the job site.
  • The commute would be too long.
  • You don't have or don't qualify for the vocational license needed to do the job.
  • You don't know how to use the technology.
  • You don't want to do particular types of work.

The agency wants to see that you've exhausted all your other options before applying for disability, so they operate under the assumption that people will move across the country to take a full-time job as an eyeglass cleaner.

While it's mostly unrealistic to expect people to uproot themselves for a minimum-wage job, the ALJ can't consider those outside factors when making a disability determination. Don't bring these up at the hearing as a reason that you can't work. At best, you'll waste valuable time; at worst, you'll give the ALJ the impression that you didn't try hard enough to find other work.

Can I Work While I Apply for Disability Benefits?

Several years can pass from your initial application until you're eventually awarded benefits, but bills can still pile up while you're waiting for your approval and back pay. Working can sometimes jeopardize your chances of getting approved, but if you need to return to work for a short period of time due to financial urgency, the SSA might find that your work constitutes an unsuccessful work attempt (UWA).

Keep in mind that if you're earning above the substantial gainful activity threshold ($1,470 per month in 2023) for longer than six months, the SSA won't likely consider your work attempt unsuccessful. You'll also need to explain to the ALJ why you wouldn't be able to do that type of work full-time.

Supportive Employment or Sheltered Work

Some people can't work full-time "competitively" in the labor market because of their disabilities, but for whatever reason don't qualify for Social Security benefits. Additional resources that can help include "supportive employment" (also known as sheltered work) or vocational rehabilitation and training programs like Ticket to Work.

The accessibility of these programs depends on your state. You can see which programs are available in your state by checking our disability resources index here.

Updated February 6, 2023

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