How Social Security Decides if You Can Do Past or Other Work

Here's how the Social Security Administration decides that you cannot work and should receive disability benefits.

By , Contributing Author

If you can show that you can no longer do the work you did in the past and you cannot perform other work, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will deem you disabled. To assess your medical condition as it relates to your ability to do past work or other work, the SSA will develop a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) for you, which represents the amount and type of work you can do, if any, with your limitations. The agency then compares your RFC with the requirements of your past jobs to see if you can perform them. It is important that your functional limitations are clearly noted in your medical records.

Can You Do Your Past Work?

In order to assess your ability to past work, and other work, the SSA needs a full job history from you. The SSA needs more than job titles, and even more than job descriptions, for the jobs you have done in the recent past.

Look Back Period

When considering your past work history, the SSA will only consider "relevant" work history. Relevant work history includes all the jobs you have done in the past 15 years that included productive activities for pay (not hobbies). The job must have lasted long enough for you to learn how to do it. (Learn about what past work is irrelevant for disability purposes.)

What the SSA Looks At

In providing information about your past relevant work (PRW) history, it is important to understand what the SSA is looking at. The agency looks at four main areas.

  • Job description, which includes tasks performed, hours worked, skills needed to do the job, and the work environment.
  • Physical demands of the job. How much you had to walk, stand, climb, sit, lift, and carry, how you used your hands, and the equipment and tools that you used on the job.
  • Difficulties you had at the job, which may include needing extra help from coworkers, working fewer hours due to your medical condition, or taking frequent sick days or rest breaks.
  • The effects of your medical condition on your ability to perform that job, including when your medical condition began to affect your job performance, when you had to stop work, and why you had to stop.

What Vocational Analysts and Experts Do

A vocational analyst is a specially trained disability examiner who works alongside the regular claims examiners. These vocational analysts assess your ability to work based on your past relevant work experience, your medical limitations (RFC), and your education. In some cases, a regular claims examiner will assess your ability to do your past work, but in complex cases, vocational analysts step in, bringing their specialized knowledge of jobs and what each type of job requires, based on the Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).

At a disability hearing, an outside vocational expert (an expert witness, called a VE) may be brought in to testify about whether you can do your old job.

What the SSA Can Decide

Once the SSA looks at your full work history, the agency can find that you:

  • can do your past work, so you are not disabled
  • can do your past work in a different way, or
  • cannot do your past work but that you may be able to do "other work."

(Note that if the vocational expert at your hearing testifies that you cannot do the job you quit before filing for disability, and you have no past work that counts as relevant, you will be approved for disability benefits. However, this situation is rare and generally applies to SSI recipients only.)

Learn how to prove you can't do your past job.

    Can You Do Other Work?

    Next, the SSA will look at whether there is other work you can adjust to doing, within the limitations of your RFC.

    What the SSA Looks At

    When looking at other work you can perform, the SSA will look at three factors.

    Work Experience. The SSA will look at your past job skills, knowledge and experience to see if you could transfer these skills and knowledge to other jobs. First, the SSA will look at your ability to perform jobs in your previous work field that are less demanding on you. Next, the SSA will look to see whether there are any jobs, in any field, anywhere in the United States, that would be suitable for you. To establish your past skills and knowledge, the SSA can use only jobs that you have performed in the last 15 years that you did for a substantial period of time and that you worked at full time or almost full time.

    Education. The SSA will look at the years of school you completed and any specialized training you may have received. The SSA uses this information to determine if you could adjust to other work. An elementary school education or illiteracy weighs strongly against an individual's ability to perform other work.

    Age. The SSA considers your age when it decides how easily you could adjust to other work. The SSA considers anyone over age 55 to have significant trouble adjusting to other work.

    Vocational analysts and/or experts will weigh in on how the above vocational factors affect your ability to do other work.

    What the SSA Can Decide

    Once the SSA looks at the three vocational factors and applies them to a standardized grid of vocational rules that the agency uses, two things can happen.

    • The SSA can find you able to do other work, and thus disabled.
    • The SSA can find you unable to do other work, or unlikely to learn or adjust to other work, and thus disabled.

    Learn how to prove there is no suitable other work you can do.

      Vocational Expert Testimony at an ALJ Hearing

      As mentioned, if you appeal your case until you get a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ), the SSA will likely bring a vocational expert (VE) to provide an expert opinion regarding your ability to return to your previous work or perform other work. Unlike a vocational analyst, a VE is usually is an outside vocational professional who provides these services to the SSA on a contract basis.

      At the hearing, the ALJ will ask the VE questions about your limitations, your job skills, your past job duties, and your ability to return to previous work or other work. You or your representative will be given a chance to ask the VE questions as well. The VE is generally required to follow the information that is in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) when deciding whether you can do your past job, one like it, or any other job in the U.S.

      To learn more, see our article on questioning the VE to establish that you cannot do your past work or any other work.

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