If you've worked in the fast food industry—whether as a cook, line worker, or manager—and you can no longer work for medical reasons, you should understand how your past job might impact your ability to obtain Social Security disability benefits. Generally speaking, it can be more difficult for individuals who have performed skilled or semi-skilled occupations (like manager of a fast food restaurant) to receive disability benefits. Conversely, an unskilled worker such as a fast food cashier usually won't possess the kind of skills that can translate into other jobs and may have an easier time obtaining benefits.
In order to give yourself the best chance at receiving disability benefits, it's important to make sure the Social Security Administration (SSA) categorizes your fast food position correctly. When completing your Work History Report (Form SSA-3369-BK) and testifying at your disability appeal hearing, make sure you clearly state the duties and requirements of your past jobs. Trying to "puff yourself up" by stating that you had greater responsibilities than you really did will not help your chances of receiving benefits.
In order to categorize your past work, the Social Security Administration (SSA) often relies on testimony from "vocational experts" who are knowledgeable about the labor market.
If a vocational expert (VE) is called to testify at your hearing, the VE will generally use the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), a Department of Labor publication, to classify your past work. Each of the thousands of listings in the DOT contains a job description, strength rating, and skill level. There are several listings in the DOT for fast food workers; here are some of the most commonly used.
Duties: Cooking foods requiring short prep time; reading order slips and taking verbal directions; preparing sandwiches, salads, beverages, and other items; cleaning work area and equipment; possibly serving meals to customers over the counter.
Strength: Medium (Lifting and carrying 50 pounds up to a third of the day, and 25 pounds up to two-thirds of the day; standing and/or walking throughout the day.)
Skill Level: 5 - Skilled Work (Training period between six months and one year; some vocational experts may testify that the actual training period may be shorter than what is stated in the DOT.)
Duties: Taking customer orders and using cash register; assembling items on serving tray or in takeout bag; serving cold beverages or frozen drinks; preparing hot beverages using coffeemaker or other machines; taking payments; performing minor cooking such as french fries.
Strength: Light (Lifting up to 20 pounds roughly one-third of the day, 10 pounds for two-thirds of the day, and negligible weight on a constant basis; standing and/or walking for a significant part of the day, usually at least six hours.)
Skill Level: 2 - Unskilled Work (Training period up to one month.)
Duties: Managing fast food franchise or independently-owned location; keeping business records; ordering and purchasing supplies and equipment, or training employees to perform those tasks; interviewing and hiring staff; preparing food and accepting money from customers
Skill Level: 5 - Skilled Work
Social Security uses medical-vocational guidelines (also known as the "grid rules") to decide whether certain workers are disabled. The grid rules generally come into play only for workers over 50.
The rules specify that individuals with certain combinations of age, strength rating, skills, and education are automatically disabled. For example, a 55-year-old with a high school education who is capable of sedentary work is automatically disabled if he has an unskilled work history. However, that same 55-year-old would be found not disabled under the grid rules if he had learned transferable skills from a past job that was considered "skilled."
For example, if that 55-year-old had worked only as a fast food line worker (unskilled work), he would be found disabled based on the grid rules. But if that individual had worked as a fast food manager (skilled work) and Social Security's vocational expert finds he had acquired some transferable skills from that job, he would not be disabled based on the grid rules.
Keep in mind that, while the grid rules may show that someone is "not disabled," an individual could still be eligible for benefits based on having a low Residual Functional Capacity (RFC, the maximum abilities you have in spite of your impairments). For instance, a 55-year-old with a skilled work history and transferable skills could be found disabled despite the grid rules if his RFC required him to lie down for two hours during a workday.
If your RFC contains that limitation or any others that would prevent all full-time employment, you'll be found disabled regardless of the grid rules. To learn more, read our article on physical and mental limitations that prevent all work.