The Social Security Administration (SSA) will pay you disability benefits if you can show that you can't return to your past jobs or do any other work. To determine whether you can do your past work or any other jobs, the agency will review your medical records and your activities of daily living questionnaire to find any functional limitations, physical or mental, that belong in your residual functional capacity (RFC).
Your RFC is a set of restrictions on the kinds of activities you can do in a work environment. Social Security compares your RFC with the demands of your past work to see if you could do those jobs with your current limitations. If you can't, the agency will then determine whether other jobs exist that you could do with your RFC.
Social Security needs a complete, detailed work history from you in order to determine whether you can do your past job—just writing down the job titles isn't always enough.
But the agency is only interested in your "relevant" work history, meaning that jobs you've done too far in the past or jobs that you didn't perform for very long won't make the cut.
Not all jobs that you've ever performed will count as past relevant work. Jobs that Social Security won't consider as relevant to your work history include:
This means that Social Security can't deny your claim because the agency thinks you can do a job that you briefly worked at, or a job that ended in 2005. Any volunteer activities or hobbies are also excluded from your past relevant work.
Social Security wants to understand the realities of what you did on your jobs on a day-to-day basis. This includes information such as:
A vocational analyst is a trained professional who works alongside disability claims examiners at Disability Determination Services (DDS). These vocational analysts use a Department of Labor publication, known as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), to classify your past work according to how physically demanding and mentally challenging it is. Vocational analysts use the restrictions in your RFC to determine whether you can do your past jobs.
Or, if you've been denied benefits by DDS, at a disability hearing, an outside witness called a vocational expert may be brought in to testify about whether you can perform your past work, given your age, education, and RFC.
Once the vocational analyst and claims examiner (or vocational expert and administrative law judge) look at your full work history, they'll decide whether you're currently capable of doing your past work. If Social Security thinks you can return to a previous job, the agency can't find you disabled, and you'll receive a denial of benefits. (If you've been denied benefits and will attend a hearing, read about how to improve your chances of getting disability in our article on proving you can't do your past work at a hearing.)
If you can't do your past work, Social Security will need to see whether other jobs exist that you can still do.
Under step 5 of Social Security's sequential evaluation process, the agency needs to determine whether disability applicants who can't return to their past work can still perform other work in the national economy (any jobs in the United States). At this step, Social Security considers the following factors:
After Social Security has reviewed all the above factors, the agency will decide whether you're able to do other work. If Social Security finds that other jobs exist—in significant numbers—that you can still do despite the limitations in your RFC, you won't meet the agency's definition of disability and your application will be denied. If you're unable to do other work, or are unlikely to learn or adjust to other work, then you meet the agency's definition of disability and you will receive an award letter or favorable decision.
If you've been denied benefits and are headed to a disability hearing, read our article on questioning the vocational expert's testimony at a hearing with regard to whether you can do other work.
Updated November 21, 2023