Getting Disability as a Salesperson Who Can No Longer Work

If you're unable to return to your job as a salesperson due to medical issues, you may be eligible to receive 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 unable to return to your retail sales job due to medical issues, you may be eligible to receive disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). You'll need to show that not only can you no longer perform the tasks required in your sales position, but that you're also unable to do any other type of full-time work.

How Your Sales Job Affects Whether You'll Get Benefits

One part of the five-step sequential evaluation process—the method by which Social Security evaluates disability claims—involves classifying your past work. The agency uses a Department of Labor publication called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) that categorizes all jobs according to their exertional and skill level. The exertional level describes how physically demanding the job is, while the skill level describes how complicated the job duties are.

If you have physical limitations that keep you from performing the exertional requirements of your past sales position—or mental limitations that restrict your ability to carry out sales tasks— the SSA won't expect you to return to that kind of work. Because the agency can't award you benefits if you can still do your old job, showing that you're unable to work as a salesperson means that you're one step closer to receiving benefits.

Descriptions of Sales Positions in the DOT

For each of the thousands of positions contained in the DOT, you'll find a job description, exertional requirements, typical training period, and skill level. Most retail sales jobs in the DOT consist of selling merchandise to the public, including furniture, motor vehicles, apparel, or appliances. Some of the tasks associated with retail sales positions include:

  • greeting customers
  • explaining the use, operation, and maintenance of merchandise
  • assisting customers with trying on merchandise
  • preparing sales slips or contracts
  • calculating sales prices of merchandise
  • setting up delivery
  • arranging financing or insurance
  • maintaining records of sales, and
  • conducting inventories of stock.

Each representative job has its own nine-digit number associated with the description, called the DOT code. There are several dozen specific DOT codes for sales positions, depending on the trade. (Note that cashiers are described elsewhere in the DOT.) For example, here's the description under DOT code 279.357-050 for salesperson, general hardware:

Like most retail jobs, the hardware salesperson job is listed at the "light" exertional level and is considered semi-skilled. Light jobs require the physical ability to lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, as well as being able to stand or walk six hours total out of an eight hour day. Semi-skilled work can be done after a training period of between one and six months, and requires basic competence in the areas of reasoning, math, and language.

Some retail positions, such as those involving car sales, expensive machinery, or other specialty items, are classified as "skilled" jobs. Skilled jobs often require a high school diploma and have training periods that can last a year or more. The more skills you have from your sales work, the harder it might be for you to get disability benefits—because the SSA could find that you could use those skills at another job.

Showing That You Can't Return to Your Sales Job

Your best chance of showing that you can't return to your old work is in front of a judge at a disability hearing. At your hearing, the judge will likely take testimony from a vocational expert who will review your work history and classify your sales jobs using the DOT.

Pay attention to what the vocational expert is saying when they're describing your work. It's important that they describe your job the way you actually performed it, using the information you provided about the job duties. If your daily tasks involved lifting and unloading 50 pounds of merchandise, let the vocational expert and judge know. The physical requirements of your job determines the job's exertional level, which may be beyond your current residual functional capacity (RFC).

What's In Your RFC?

Your RFC is a set of limitations, physical and mental, about what you can and can't do at work. Social Security reviews your medical records, doctors' opinions, and self-reported daily activities to determine what restrictions to include in your RFC.

The more severe your symptoms are, the more restrictions you'll have in your RFC. And the agency must consider how your impairments combined affect your ability to do work-related tasks, so make sure Social Security is aware of every condition you're receiving medical treatment for—even if you don't think it's the main reason why you can't work.

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC?

Social Security will compare your RFC to the exertional and skill level of your sales position to see if you could do that job today. So if you're limited to sit-down work because you have a back injury that makes it painful to stand and walk, it's unlikely that the agency will find that you can return to a sales position where you had to be on your feet most of the day. Or if you have a mental health disorder that interferes with your ability to follow instructions, you probably won't be able to return to a sales job that required detailed mathematical analysis.

At a disability hearing, the judge will ask the vocational expert several questions to help determine if somebody with your limitations could perform your past sales work. If not, then the judge needs to decide whether other jobs exist that you do despite your limitations (and considering other factors like your age and education).

Getting Disability by Showing You Can't Do Other Work

Whether or not Social Security finds that you're able to do other work depends largely on your age, the limitations in your RFC, and any transferable skills you've learned as a salesperson. If you're 50 years of age or older, you may have an easier time qualifying for benefits under the medical-vocational grid rules (or simply "the grid"). Disability applicants younger than 50 generally need to show that they can't do even the simplest, least physically demanding jobs.

Using the Medical-Vocational Grid to Get Benefits

The grid rules are Social Security's way of acknowledging that it's more difficult to switch jobs the older you get. Under the grid, the agency may be required to award you benefits based on a combination of your age, RFC, and work history.

For example, a 55-year old high school graduate with a work history of semi-skilled retail sales jobs must be found disabled—even if they can physically perform sedentary work—if they don't have any transferable skills that they could use at a sit-down job. But somebody with the same physical RFC and age who does have transferable skills wouldn't qualify for disability benefits, because Social Security will assume they can use those skills at another job.

If you're 50 or older, the judge at your hearing will almost certainly ask the vocational expert whether you have transferable skills. The term "transferable" covers a wide range of skills, including anything from supervisory or management experience to knowing how to arrange financing or take inventories.

Because having transferable skills can be the deciding factor in your disability claim, it's very important to make sure the vocational expert describes your past sales position properly. If you never set up deliveries or conducted inventories, the vocational expert shouldn't say that you did any job involving these tasks or consider them to be transferable skills. For more information, see our article on ruling out other work because you don't have job skills.

Eliminating All Full-Time Work Based on Your RFC

If you can't return to your past sales job but aren't found disabled based on the grid rules—either because you're younger than 50 or you don't have many physical limitations—you can still qualify for benefits if no jobs exist that you can do with your RFC.

Some limitations in your RFC are so restrictive that vocational experts consider them "inconsistent with competitive employment." Common examples include:

  • excessive absenteeism (generally missing two or more days of work per month)
  • having reduced productivity ("off-task" behavior) for 15-20% of the workday
  • needing to lie down, recline, or elevate your legs to relieve pain, or
  • being unable to lift ten pounds or sit for six hours out of an eight hour day.

Employers typically won't tolerate such significant limitations from their full-time employees, so if the judge agrees that your RFC supports these restrictions, it's likely that you'll be found disabled.

Contacting a Disability Attorney

While you're not required to have a lawyer at any stage of the disability application process, you'll increase your odds of winning with an experienced representative. Your attorney will understand how to cross-examine vocational experts, know which grid rules might apply in your specific situation, and obtain medical evidence that can help rule out all work.

Updated March 6, 2024

Do You Qualify for Disability in Your State?
Find out in minutes by taking our short quiz.

Talk to a Disability Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Boost Your Chance of Being Approved

Get the Compensation You Deserve

Our experts have helped thousands like you get cash benefits.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you