Getting Disability as a Janitor or Cleaner Who Can No Longer Work

Whether a cleaner or janitor who can no longer work will get Social Security disability benefits depends on what limitations they now have.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

If you're a janitor or cleaner who can no longer work due to medical issues, you may be entitled to Social Security disability benefits. In evaluating your disability claim, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first consider whether you can't handle the physical and mental demands of your past janitorial or cleaning work.

It's essential that you provide Social Security with a detailed description of your past work when you complete your disability application. Two forms in particular, the Disability Report - Adult (SSA-3368-BK) and the Work History Report (SSA-3369-BK), will request information about the physical requirements of your past jobs, including the amount of lifting, carrying, walking, standing, sitting, and reaching you performed. Make sure that you don't underestimate the physical demands of your prior occupations, as doing so could make it more difficult to get approved for disability benefits.

How the DOT Classifies Cleaning Positions

Social Security relies on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), a U.S. Department of Labor publication, to classify an individual's past work and identify the strength rating, educational level, and training requirements of each job. The DOT states that janitorial and cleaning jobs (not including maids and housekeepers) generally involve the following tasks:

  • sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming floors, using liquid solutions, tools, and equipment
  • cleaning walls, ceilings, windows, and building fixtures
  • collecting and emptying trash containers
  • notifying management personnel of needed repairs, and
  • dusting furniture, surfaces, equipment, and walls.
The DOT provides separate listings for commercial cleaners, industrial cleaners, and janitors who perform building superintendent duties.

Commercial Cleaners

The commercial cleaner position is classified as unskilled, heavy work. As such, it requires only a brief training period and minimal math and language abilities, but it does involve lifting up to 100 pounds on an occasional basis, and 50 pounds frequently. Commercial cleaners generally clean and maintain office buildings, apartment complexes, or other institutional buildings. In addition to performing the general duties of a cleaner (described above), commercial cleaners may be responsible for using power tools, transporting equipment, cutting grass, and shoveling snow.

Industrial Cleaners

The DOT lists the industrial cleaner position, also referred to as a janitor, as unskilled, medium work. It may require a training period of up to a month, and it does not require advanced math or language skills. As a medium job, it requires lifting and carrying 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. Industrial cleaners are charged with maintaining cleanliness and order in production spaces of industrial facilities.

Janitors with Superintendent Duties

Unlike most other cleaning positions, the janitor/superintendent position is classified as semi-skilled, requiring more advanced reasoning, math, and language abilities, and up to three months of training. It is a "medium" strength job usually performed in an apartment building, office, or hotel, and sometimes requiring on-site residence. In addition to ordinary cleaning duties, a superintendent may be responsible for:

  • performing minor painting, plumbing, and electrical work
  • tending and maintaining furnace and air conditioner
  • warning tenants of complaints regarding noise, unruly conduct, or other issues, and
  • advertising vacancies and showing apartments to possible tenants.

As we'll see when we examine Social Security's grid rules, cleaners with superintendent duties may have a somewhat more difficult time qualifying for disability benefits based on the grids.

How Social Security's Grid Rules Apply to Janitorial Jobs

Under Social Security's medical-vocational "grid rules," disability benefits may be awarded to certain individuals based on a combination of their age, education, work history, and physical limitations. Generally speaking, the grids benefit older claimants with limited educations and unskilled work histories.

For example, a person who has done unskilled, medium work as a janitor or cleaner could qualify for benefits in any of the following scenarios:

  • age 55 or over, high school graduate, now limited to performing light work
  • over 50, no high school diploma or GED, now can do only sedentary work, or
  • over 50, can't read or write, now limited to light work.

The grid rules only apply if Social Security agrees the janitor/cleaner can no longer do his or her past work. If that's the case, and the janitor/cleaner fits into one of these profiles, Social Security must grant disability benefits.

A semi-skilled (or skilled) work history makes a grid approval more difficult. For example, a 55-year-old superintendent with a limited education, but who possesses skills that could translate into other work, would not be eligible for disability based on the grids, but could still receive benefits due to his Residual Functional Capacity (RFC).

Disability Benefits Based on a Janitor or Cleaner's RFC

Your Residual Functional Capacity is Social Security's determination of your maximum physical and mental abilities. It will include any limitations you have on lifting, standing, walking, staying focused, or dealing with coworkers, and even environmental restrictions involving dust, fumes, or temperature. If your RFC is so restrictive that there aren't any jobs in the nation that you can perform, you'll be found disabled and granted disability benefits based on a "medical-vocational allowance." Social Security usually finds that certain RFC limitations, such as needing to miss multiple days of work per month or lie down during the workday, prevent all employment and mean an applicant is disabled.

Whether you're thinking about filing for disability because you can no longer work as a cleaner, or you've already been denied and need to appeal, your chances of success greatly increase when you hire an experienced attorney to handle your case.

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