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

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

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

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.

Can You Do Your Past Work?

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.

What Is Past Relevant Work?

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.

Information Social Security Looks for in 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:

  • The job description. Your job description should detail the types of tasks you performed, the number of hours you worked (and when), what skills you needed to do the job, and the environment in which you performed the work (such as a warehouse or office).
  • The physical demands of the job. Physical demands mean how long you had to sit, walk, and stand; whether you needed to climb ladders or stairs; how much weight you had to lift and carry; how you used your hands (typing, for example); and the kinds of equipment and tools that you used.
  • Any difficulties you had at the job. If you needed help from coworkers to perform your job tasks, required any specialized equipment, worked fewer hours than other employees, were allowed to take additional rest breaks, or had your schedule adjusted to accommodate your medical condition, let Social Security know.
  • How your medical condition affected your ability to perform that job. Tell Social Security the approximate date when your medical condition began to affect your job performance, when you had to stop work (whether you quit or were let go), and why you had to stop.

The Role of Vocational Analysts and Experts in Deciding If You Can Do Your Past Work

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.

Can You Do Other Work?

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:

  • Your RFC. You aren't expected to do any job that's beyond your capabilities, physically or mentally. Any jobs that require you to perform a task—such as lifting 20 pounds or interacting with the general public—that your RFC restricts you from doing will be ruled out. The more restrictions you have in your RFC, the more jobs will be ruled out (or eliminated entirely).
  • Work experience. Even though, at this step of the analysis, Social Security doesn't think you can return to your past jobs, the agency needs to see whether you acquired any transferable skills from your past work. If you learned any skills on your old jobs that you could use at a less demanding kind of work, Social Security might find that you're able to perform those jobs.
  • Education. Social Security looks at the years of school you completed and any specialized training you may have received to help determine if you could learn to do other work. Applicants with limited formal education (who left school in 11th grade or earlier) are unlikely to be able to make that adjustment.
  • Age. The agency recognizes that applicants who are close to full retirement age are often at a disadvantage in the competitive workforce. Under the medical-vocational grid rules, it becomes increasingly easier to qualify for disability the older you get. People between the ages of 50-54, 55-59, and 60-64 have respectively higher chances of getting approved for benefits.

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

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