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

If you can't work due to medical issues, and your past job was as a janitor or cleaner, you might be entitled to Social Security disability benefits.

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

If you're a janitor or cleaner who can no longer work due to a medical condition, you might be entitled to Social Security disability benefits (SSDI or SSI). When evaluating your disability claim, the Social Security Administration (SSA) usually needs to see whether you can still perform the physical and mental tasks involved in your past janitorial or cleaning work.

Because deciding if you can do your past custodial jobs is essential in deciding whether you're disabled, it's important to provide Social Security with a comprehensive description of your past work when you complete your disability application. The agency relies on your work history to properly classify your jobs according to several exertional and skill levels—a crucial step in the disability determination process.

How Social Security Classifies Janitorial, Custodial, and Cleaning Positions

Social Security uses a Department of Labor publication called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to categorize your past work. The DOT contains descriptions of pretty much every job 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 general tasks performed on the job. Vocational experts use DOT codes to look up the duties, strength requirements, and skill levels of the jobs you've done before.

The overall DOT category for janitors and cleaners (not including maids and housekeepers) states that those jobs typically include the following tasks (among others):

  • sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming floors, using cleaning 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.

Because the actual on-site duties for custodial and cleaning jobs can vary significantly according to location, your work history may correspond to several different DOT codes. For example, the DOT has separate codes for commercial cleaners, industrial cleaners, and janitors who perform building superintendent duties. (You can search the DOT database online to find the DOT code that best describes your past jobs.)

Commercial Cleaners

DOT code 381.687-014 describes the position of cleaner, commercial or institutional. Commercial cleaners clean and maintain office buildings, apartment complexes, or other large 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.

The commercial cleaner position is classified as heavy, unskilled work, meaning that it requires significant physical strength (lifting up to 50 pounds regularly and 100 pounds on occasion), but can be learned after a short training period and involves minimal math and language abilities.

Industrial Cleaners

DOT code 381.678-018 describes the position of cleaner, industrial. Industrial cleaners maintain cleanliness and order in production spaces of factories or warehouses. Job duties are similar to those of commercial cleaners, but can involve greater exposure to environmental hazards. For example, daily tasks can include wiping down oil, lint, or grease from machines.

The industrial cleaner position is classified as medium, unskilled work. As with commercial cleaner jobs, industrial cleaners can learn how to perform the job in one month or less, and little math or language skills are needed. The position is slightly less physically demanding than commercial cleaner, however, requiring the ability to lift and carry 25 pounds frequently and up to 50 pounds occasionally.

Janitors with Superintendent Duties

DOT code 382.664-010 describes the position of janitor (superintendent). This job is usually performed in an apartment complex, office, or hotel. In addition to general cleaning duties, superintendents may also need to perform building upkeep tasks, such as performing minor painting, plumbing, electrical, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) repairs.

Like industrial cleaner, the janitor/superintendent job is performed at the medium exertional level. But unlike many other cleaning positions, superintendent duties require more advanced reasoning, math, and language abilities (and a longer training period), meaning the DOT classifies the job as "semi-skilled."

Janitorial Services Supervisor

DOT code 381.137-010 describes the position of supervisor, janitorial services (often referred to as "head" or "lead" janitor). The duties are more managerial in nature, including assigning employee tasks, training new hires, keeping records, and making sure completed work is done properly.

Many managerial positions require complex coordination, and therefore are usually classified as "skilled." Janitorial services supervisor is no exception—the DOT expects it to take a minimum of six months to learn how to perform the job. And because part of the job duties involve issuing supplies and equipment—some of which can weigh 25 pounds or more—the job is classified at the medium exertional level.

You can make sure that Social Security assigns the correct DOT to your past jobs by taking the time to accurately complete Form SSA-3369-BK, Work History Report. The work history report is your opportunity to discuss your day-to-day job responsibilities. You should discuss basic strength-related tasks, such as the heaviest objects you lifted, how often you lifted them, and how much of the workday you spent on your feet (standing or walking). Other important details include how frequently you used your hands to scrub, how often you needed to reach back and forth to mop, and how much you needed to kneel or bend to clean corners or ducts.

What Janitors and Cleaners Need to Know About Residual Functional Capacity

Your residual functional capacity (RFC) is Social Security's assessment of your maximum physical and mental abilities. It's a short paragraph that states any work-related limitations you have as a result of your medical impairments. Social Security reviews your medical records, daily activities, and doctors' opinions when determining your RFC.

Depending on the nature of your conditions and the severity of your symptoms, your RFC can contain restrictions on lifting, standing, walking, staying focused, or dealing with coworkers. It can even include environmental restrictions involving working around dust, fumes, or extreme temperatures—limitations of particular importance to people who've worked in custodial jobs that often involve exposure to dirt and chemicals.

If your RFC has so many restrictions in it that no jobs exist that you can safely perform, Social Security will find that you're disabled and award you benefits. The agency usually finds that certain limitations in an RFC, such as needing to miss multiple days of work per month or needing to lie down during the workday, prevent all full-time employment.

How Social Security's Grid Rules Apply to Janitorial Jobs

Social Security can award benefits to certain applicants—based on a combination of their age, education, work history, and physical limitations—under the medical-vocational grid rules (or simply "the grid"). The grid rules are a way for applicants over the age of 50 to qualify for disability without needing to show that no jobs exist that they can perform.

As you approach full retirement age, Social Security has fewer expectations that you should be able to switch careers or learn a new job. This is reflected in the grid rules, which make it easier for older applicants to receive disability benefits by considering applicants' education and work skills along with their functional limitations.

For example, if your past work as a janitor or cleaner is classified as unskilled, medium work, you can use the grid rules to qualify for benefits in the following scenarios:

The grid rules only apply if you're no longer able to physically perform your past work. Because many janitor and cleaner jobs are classified as medium work (or above), this means that you'll have to show that you can't lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 frequently in order to qualify for disability under the grid.

Whether you're thinking about filing for disability because you can no longer work as a janitor, cleaner, or custodian—or you've already been denied and need to appeal—your chances of success greatly increase when you hire an experienced attorney. Your lawyer will be in the best position to argue why the grid rules should apply in your case or cross-examine a vocational expert at a disability hearing.

Updated January 16, 2024

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