Getting Disability as a Fast-Food Worker Who Can No Longer Work

Make sure Social Security knows exactly what your job duties as a fast-food worker were and why you can't do them anymore.

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

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 jobs factor in to your application for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI or SSI). Specifically, you'll want to know how Social Security classifies jobs and why it's important that your past work is correctly classified.

Getting Your Past Work Classified Correctly

Social Security uses a Department of Labor publication called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to categorize your past work. The DOT contains descriptions for thousands of jobs performed in the United States. Each job is assigned a specific nine-digit number called a DOT code, and each DOT code has a description of the physical and mental duties required to perform the job. Several different DOT codes exist for jobs in the fast-food service industry.

Why Does It Matter How My Job is Classified?

Unless your medical condition is so severe that you meet a listed impairment, Social Security will need to see that you can't perform your past relevant work before determining whether you can do other work. If the agency thinks you're physically and mentally able to return to a job you've already done, you can't receive disability benefits.

Even if you can't return to your past job but Social Security thinks that you acquired skills that allow you to perform other work, you'll receive a denial letter. Having the correct DOT code assigned to your past fast-food jobs reduces the chances that the agency will mistakenly find that you're not disabled.

Matching Your Past Jobs With the Right DOT Codes

As the disability applicant (or "claimant"), it's not your responsibility to find the proper DOT codes for your jobs—that's the role of the vocational experts who work with Social Security. But you can inadvertently harm your claim if you don't provide enough information to help the vocational expert classify your jobs correctly.

You can help keep the vocational expert from incorrectly classifying your past work by thoroughly completing your Form SSA-3369-BK, Work History Report. Don't just put your job title and employment dates down and call it quits—titles don't always accurately reflect your day-to-day job responsibilities. Clearly describe factors such as how much weight you lifted every day, how long you were on your feet, the tools and equipment you used, and the people you interacted with on a regular basis.

The vocational expert uses what you've told them about your employment history to match your past work with the correct DOT code, based on important information like the duties, strength requirements (what Social Security calls the exertional level), and the mental demands (skill level) of the job. Fast-food service industry DOT codes that might apply to your specific work background include the positions identified below.

Fast-Food Cook (DOT Code 313.374-010)

  • Duties. Cook food requiring short prep time; read order slips and take verbal directions; prepare sandwiches, salads, beverages, and other items; clean work area and equipment; may serve meals to customers over the counter.
  • Strength. This job is classified at the medium level, requiring the ability to lift and carry 50 pounds up to one-third of the day (and 25 pounds up to two-thirds of the day). Standing and walking are performed for six hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Skill Level. This job has a specific vocational preparation (SVP) number of 5, meaning it is considered skilled work with a training period between six months and one year.

Fast-Food Worker (DOT Code 311.472-010)

  • Duties. Take customer orders and use the cash register; assemble items on a serving tray or in a takeout bag; serve cold beverages or frozen drinks; prepare hot beverages using a coffee maker or other machines; take payments; perform minor cooking such as french fries.
  • Strength. This job is classified at the light exertional level, requiring the ability to lift up to 20 pounds for one-third of the day and 10 pounds for two-thirds of the workday. Standing, walking, or a combination of both make up at least 6 hours total out of an 8-hour day.
  • Skill Level. With an SVP of 2, this job is considered unskilled work, and can be learned with a training period of up to one month.

Manager, Fast-Food Services (DOT Code 185.137-010)

  • Duties. Manage a fast-food franchise or independently owned location; keep business records; order and purchase supplies and equipment (or train employees to perform those tasks); interview and hire staff; prepare food and accept money from customers.
  • Strength. Classified as light work, this job requires lifting and carrying up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, with significant standing and walking of 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday.
  • Skill Level. This job is considered skilled work with an SVP of 5 and a training period of between 6 and 12 months.

How Social Security Uses Your Past Job Classifications

Social Security uses your past job classifications by comparing the duties, strength, and skill levels with the limitations in your residual functional capacity (RFC) to see whether you could still do those jobs now. Your RFC is a set of restrictions, physical and mental, on what you can and can't do in a work environment. The agency assesses your RFC by reviewing your medical records, functional limitations, and activities of daily living.

Here's an example of an RFC for a fast-food worker and how Social Security might use it to determine whether the worker could return to their past job.

For workers 50 years of age or older, being able to show that you can't do your past jobs may be enough to qualify for disability benefits under the medical-vocational guidelines (also known as the "grid rules" or simply "the grid"). Using the grid, Social Security can award disability benefits to claimants who aren't able to return to their old jobs and aren't expected to learn other jobs based on a combination of their age, education, and transferable skills.

Continuing with the above example, here's one way that Social Security can apply the grid rules for claimants who are at least 50 years old:

Keep in mind that if you have transferable skills, you can't use the grid rules to get disability, because Social Security will assume that you can use those skills at another job. So if the agency thinks your past job was as a fast-food services manager (skilled work) but you actually performed the duties of a fast-food worker (unskilled work), you might erroneously get denied benefits when you really should have been approved under the grid—a good reason why you shouldn't inflate your job responsibilities in your work history report.

The Grid Rules Don't Apply to Me, Can I Still Get Benefits?

The grid rules generally don't apply to claimants under the age of 50 or claimants of any age with transferable skills, but you can get benefits without using the grid rules if you can show that your RFC rules out both your past work and all other jobs. In Social Security lingo, this is sometimes called having a "less-than-sedentary" RFC, because it means the restrictions in your RFC eliminate even the simplest sit-down jobs.

Because even the "easiest" jobs require you to show up on time and complete job tasks, any limitations in your RFC that significantly interfere with your ability to do that can rule out all work. These limitations can be physical—such as needing to lie down in order to relieve pain—or mental, like being unable to keep up pace.

For an in-depth discussion of RFC restrictions that can get you approved for disability, see our article on physical and mental limitations that prevent all work.

Updated January 22, 2024

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