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

If you've worked as a secretary or administrative assistant but are now unable to work due to a disability, you may be entitled to Social Security or SSI benefits. The nature of a disability applicant's past work can be a decisive factor in whether Social Security disability benefits are awarded, especially for claimants aged 50 and older.

It's essential that when you complete the Work History Report (Form SSA-3369-BK) as part of your disability application, you clearly state not only your job title and the dates you worked, but also the duties you performed and the physical and mental requirements of each of your jobs. If the Social Security Administration (SSA) mistakenly believes you have performed highly skilled work and that you possess transferable skills, the SSA could decide that you're capable of performing certain jobs for which you aren't really qualified.

Social Security relies on a Department of Labor publication called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to assess the mental and physical requirements of thousands of different jobs. The DOT contains several listings for secretaries, administrative assistants, and related jobs. We'll look at a few of these listings, and then discuss why it's so important for Social Security to classify your past work correctly.

Secretary (Clerical)

Most individuals who have worked as secretaries or administrative assistants in an office environment will find their job description at DOT listing 201.362-020 for secretary (clerical). According to the DOT, the duties of this position include the following:

  • Greet visitors and ascertain nature of business
  • Schedule appointments
  • Answer telephone and provide information to callers or transfer call to appropriate colleague
  • Generally relieve officials of clerical work and certain administrative and business detail
  • Read and direct incoming mail
  • Type and file correspondence
  • Record minutes of staff meetings
  • Make copies of correspondence or other documents using copy machine, and
  • Prepare outgoing mail using postage meter.

The secretary position is classified as a sedentary job, which means it is generally performed seated but may require minimal amounts of standing and walking. Occasional lifting of up to ten pounds is required, with frequent lifting of five pounds or less. Because the Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) of this position is listed at level 6, the DOT considers this job to be "skilled."

File Clerk (Clerical)

The DOT also has a job description for file clerk at 206.367-014. File clerk positions are considered less skilled than secretarial positions. With a skill level of 3, file clerks are considered semi-skilled.

  • Files correspondence, cards, invoices, receipts, and other records in alphabetical or numerical order, or according to subject matter, or other system
  • Searches for and investigates information contained in files
  • Keeps files current
  • Supplies information from file data
  • May type labels or reports
  • May copy records on photocopying or microfilming machines, and
  • May make calculations or use calculating machine to keep files current.

The file clerk position is classified as light work rather than sedentary. To be able to do light work, you need to be able to stand and walk for up to 6 hours in an 8 hour day and lift 10 lbs. frequently and 20 lbs. occasionally.

Administrative Secretary (Executive Level)

The listing for this highly skilled, highly responsible position is found at DOT listing 169.167-014. Executive secretaries perform a wide range of duties, generally under the supervision of high-level management personnel, including the following:

  • Act as custodian of corporate documents
  • Execute administrative policies determined in conjunction with other officials
  • Prepare memos detailing administrative policies and procedures to supervisory employees
  • Direct preparation of notices, resolutions, minutes, and other records for stockholders' and directors' meetings, and
  • Direct recording of company stock issues and transfers.
This position is considered sedentary and skilled, with an SVP of 8. Remember: this is a highly specialized position and this listing does not apply to the vast majority of people who have worked as secretaries or administrative assistants.

Secretarial Jobs and Social Security's Grid Rules

SSA's Medical-Vocational Guidelines (commonly known as the "Grid Rules") allow some individuals over 50 to automatically receive disability benefits based on the combination of their age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (RFC). (Your RFC is an assessment of the maximum mental and physical abilities you retain in spite of your medical issues.)

For example, consider a 56-year-old with a tenth-grade education and an RFC at the sedentary level who has performed only unskilled work. SSA's Grid Rules recognize that such an individual would be unlikely to be hired in the competitive labor market, and thus the Grids dictate an automatic finding of disability.

However, if another 56-year-old with a tenth-grade education and sedentary RFC had previously performed skilled work as a secretary, and had acquired some transferable skills from that position, such as typing or using office equipment, the Grid Rules do not direct an automatic finding of disability. Instead, individuals who aren't found disabled under the Grids can be awarded disability benefits only by proving that they lack the RFC to perform any job (assuming they don't meet a Blue Book listing).

That's why it's important to let Social Security know about the exact duties you performed. If, for example, Social Security thinks you performed highly skilled secretarial tasks but in reality your only duties were typing documents, typing is the only skill that Social Security could consider as possibly transferable. And if you are no longer able to type -- for example, because of permanent nerve damage due to repetitive stress or severe hand arthritis -- the agency would not be able to find that you have any skills you could transfer to another job.

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