Getting Disability as a Secretary or Admin Assistant Who Can No Longer Work

How skilled your past secretarial job was can affect whether you'll be approved for Social Security disability benefits.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

If your previous jobs include secretary or administrative ("admin") assistant, but you're no longer able to work full-time due to a severe impairment, you might qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Because secretarial or admin assistant jobs are usually—but not always—done sitting down, you'll generally need to show that you can't perform what Social Security refers to as sedentary work before the agency can award you benefits.

Classifying Secretary or Administrative Assistant Jobs

The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a Department of Labor publication called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to describe the physical and mental requirements of almost all jobs. The DOT classifies every job according to exertional level (the amount of lifting, carrying, standing, and walking needed to perform the job duties) and skill level (the complexity of the job duties). Activities such as reaching, grasping objects, and bending are also included in the DOT description.

The DOT classifies most secretarial or administrative jobs as sedentary on an exertional level. Sedentary jobs require you to lift and carry up to ten pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently. You'll also need to be able to sit for six hours total out of an eight-hour workday and be on your feet (walking or standing) for two hours total in an eight-hour workday.

Skill levels for these occupations are typically skilled or semi-skilled. Semi-skilled work involves detailed (but not complex) tasks that take about three to six months to learn. Skilled work involves complex tasks that require abstract thinking and judgment calls. A minimum of six months is needed to learn how to perform a skilled job.

Below are some examples of common administrative or secretarial jobs along with their DOT classification number (the DOT code).

Secretary (Clerical)

If you've worked as a secretary or admin assistant in an office environment, your job description will most likely be under DOT code 201.362-030, secretary (clerical). According to the DOT, the duties of this position include the following:

  • greeting visitors and finding out the nature of their business
  • scheduling appointments
  • answering the telephone and providing information to callers
  • transferring calls to appropriate coworkers
  • helping with minor clerical work
  • reading and directing incoming mail
  • typing and filing correspondence
  • recording minutes of staff meetings
  • making copies of documents, and
  • preparing outgoing mail.

The position of clerical secretary is classified as sedentary and skilled, taking one to two years to learn. The DOT defines admin assistant in the same way as it does secretary (clerical).

Administrative Secretary (Executive)

The description for this position is found at DOT code 169.167-014. Executive secretaries perform a wide range of duties, generally under the supervision of high-level management personnel, such as:

  • keeping official corporate documents
  • preparing memos detailing administrative policies and procedures to supervisors
  • carrying out administrative policies
  • planning conferences
  • directing the preparation of records for stockholders' and directors' meetings, and
  • directing the recording of company stock issues and transfers.

As you might guess by the more complex duties of this position, despite the rather generic title of "administrative secretary," this job is fairly specialized. The DOT code assigned to administrative secretary doesn't apply to the majority of people who've worked as secretaries or admin assistants, so make sure to correctly identify your job on your work history report.

Like the position of secretary (clerical), administrative secretary is performed mostly at a desk and is therefore classified as sedentary. It's also a skilled job, but takes longer—between four to ten years—to learn how to perform.

Legal, Medical, and School Secretaries

Some admin assistant positions are classified separately based on the type of profession they provide clerical support for:

  • DOT code 201.362-010, legal secretary, involves preparing legal documents such as summonses, complaints, motions, and subpoenas.
  • DOT code 201.362-014, medical secretary, requires knowledge of medical terminology and hospital, clinic, or laboratory procedures.
  • DOT code 201.362-022, school secretary, entails composing correspondence, bulletins, and memos for students, teachers, and parents.

Each of the above jobs are classified as sedentary and skilled, taking between six months and two years to learn.

File Clerk I or II (Clerical)

The DOT has two descriptions for the job of file clerk under 206.367-034, file clerk (I) and 206.367-014, file clerk (II). Both file clerk positions are considered semi-skilled as the job duties are slightly simpler than secretarial positions, including the following tasks:

  • filing records according to subject or in alphabetical or numerical order
  • searching for and investigating information contained in files
  • keeping files current, and
  • supplying information from file data to coworkers.

The duties of file clerk (I) can also include entering information on records and color-coding material to reduce errors, while file clerk (II) might involve typing labels or reports, copying records, or making calculations.

Both positions are classified as light work rather than sedentary, meaning that the job requires slightly more physical exertion than secretarial work does. You'll need to be able to stand and walk for up to six hours total in an eight-hour work day and lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently to perform the job of file clerk I or II.

Secretarial Jobs and Social Security's Grid Rules

Social Security's medical-vocational guidelines—commonly referred to as the "grid rules," or just "the grid"—allow some disability applicants 50 years of age or older to get benefits based on the combination of their age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is an assessment of the most you can do, physically and mentally, despite any functional limitations from your medical conditions.

The agency uses your RFC to determine whether you can perform your past work as a secretary or admin assistant. If the limitations in your RFC keep you from doing those jobs—and you're at least 50 years old—then Social Security needs to determine whether the skills you learned in your old jobs can transfer to other work.

Below are some examples of how the grid rules might apply for disability applicants who can't return to their past secretarial or administrative jobs.

You won't be able to rely on the grid rules to get disability if you have any transferable skills that could allow you to do another job with "minimal vocational adjustment." Minimal vocational adjustment means that you would use the same kinds of tools and work procedures within the same industry.

But if you need to make more than a minimal vocational adjustment in order to use your skills, Social Security will find that they aren't actually transferable—which can play a crucial role in determining disability for applicants who are 55 or older (even more so for those over 60).

Showing You Can't Work as a Secretary or Admin Assistant

Because secretarial and administrative jobs are mainly classified as sedentary and skilled, you'll need to show that you can't physically perform sit-down work anymore, that you're unable to mentally complete skilled tasks, or a combination of both. You can do this by making sure you have a strong medical record and a detailed work history for Social Security to review.

Medical Limitations That Rule Out Sedentary, Skilled Jobs

One limitation that prevents anyone from performing sedentary work is a restriction on fine and gross manipulation (how often you're able to use your hands). Because secretarial and administrative work requires frequent—if not constant—typing, writing, and filing, a restriction to occasional (one-third of the workday) manipulation almost certainly will eliminate those jobs. Manipulative limitations are common in RFCs for applicants with carpal tunnel syndrome or hand arthritis.

Mental restrictions can also rule out skilled work. A restriction to unskilled jobs means that you can't perform the skilled and semi-skilled jobs that make up administrative work—which may be enough for you to get disability benefits under the grid rules. And if you have a mental disorder that significantly interferes with your ability to maintain attendance and finish your job tasks on time, Social Security might find that your RFC is "inconsistent with competitive employment."

Social Security can't put limitations in your RFC that aren't supported by medical evidence, so make sure that you have documentation of any condition that would restrict your ability to work. For example, if you have trouble typing as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome, your records should include the results of any nerve conduction studies showing "latency" (slow nerves) in your affected hand. Or if you have anxiety that affects your productivity, you should submit a mental status evaluation from your doctor that discusses your troubles in functioning.

Provide a Detailed Work History

For Social Security to properly classify your past jobs, it's important for the agency to know the exact duties you performed. For example, if Social Security thinks you performed all the tasks of a clerical secretary but in reality your duties were closer to that of a file clerk, the agency might find that you're capable of performing certain jobs for which you aren't really qualified—and could deny you benefits based on that error.

Avoid any mistakes over proper job classification by thoroughly completing Form SSA-3369-BK, Work History Report as part of your disability application. Clearly state not only your job title and the dates you worked, but also the duties you performed and the requirements—physical and mental—of each of your jobs. Resist any temptation to either downplay your achievements or exaggerate your duties. Social Security needs an accurate picture of your work history in order to decide your claim.

Getting Help From a Disability Attorney

Proving that you don't have transferable skills or that you can't do sit-down jobs anymore can be challenging to tackle by yourself. You may wish to consider hiring an experienced disability attorney to walk you through the process, obtain medical records, and represent you at a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.

Updated January 19, 2024

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