Getting Disability as a Salesperson Who Can No Longer Work

Whether a salesperson who can no longer work will get Social Security disability benefits depends on their limitations and the specifics of their past sales jobs.

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

If you're unable to return to your retail sales job due to medical issues, you may be eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits. First, you'll need to get Social Security to agree that you can't do the tasks required of a salesperson, and second, you'll need to prove that you can't do any other type of full-time job.

Social Security uses a Department of Labor publication known as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to classify your past work. Social Security will use the DOT's description of your retail sales job, including its exertional level (sedentary, light, medium, or heavy) and your testimony about its physical and mental requirements, to determine whether you're able to perform that position. If you cannot, Social Security will use the DOT to decide whether there are other jobs in the U.S. that you can perform, based on your age, educational level, and work experience.

How the DOT Describes Sales Jobs

For each of the thousands of positions contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, you'll find a job description, exertional (strength) rating, typical training period, and educational level. According to the DOT, retail sales jobs consist of selling merchandise to the public, including furniture, motor vehicles, apparel, or appliances. (Note that cashiers are specifically excluded from the retail salesperson listing, but are described elsewhere in the DOT.)

The DOT lists some of the tasks associated with retail sales positions, including:

  • 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.

Depending on your industry, the DOT may provide a more detailed description of your duties. For example, here is an excerpt from the DOT listing for Salesperson, General Hardware:

Sells hardware, such as nails, bolts, screws, hand-and-power tools, electrical equipment, plumbing supplies, garden tools, and paint; Advises customer on tools, hardware, and materials needed, and procedure to follow to complete task customer wishes to perform. Informs customer about quality of tools, hardware and equipment, and demonstrates use.

Like most retail jobs, the hardware salesperson job is listed at the "light" exertional level, meaning it generally requires occasional lifting of 20 pounds and frequent lifting of 10 pounds. In addition, light jobs typically involve a significant amount of standing or walking, typically from six to eight hours a day.

In addition, most retail sales jobs in the DOT are classified as "semi-skilled," requiring a training period of more than one month but fewer than six months. The educational requirements of sales jobs include basic competence in the areas of reasoning, math, and language.

Some retail positions, such as those dealing in automobiles, expensive machinery, or other specialty items, are classified as "skilled" jobs, which may require advanced educational abilities and a training period of a year or more. This can make it harder to get disability benefits, which we'll discuss below.

Can You Return to Your Sales Job?

At your hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) may take testimony from a vocational expert who will describe and classify your past sales work. It's important that the vocational expert describe your job the way you actually performed it, using information you provided about the job's requirements. For instance, if part of your daily work was lifting and unloading 20 lb. boxes of product, make sure the vocational expert and judge know this. This will affect whether they think you can still do the work.

Next the ALJ will consider whether you can return to your sales job as described, based on your Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), an assessment of your physical and mental abilities. For instance, if you've been given a sedentary work level due to the limitations in your RFC, it's unlikely that the vocational expert of judge would find that you could still work your sales job.

If the ALJ determines that you can't perform your past work, your case proceeds to the final step of the analysis, where the ALJ will decide if there if other work you can do. At that step, you may be approved based on a grid rule or through your RFC.

Obtaining Disability Through SSA's Grid Rules

Social Security's "medical-vocational grid rules" allow certain individuals to receive disability benefits based on a combination of their age, physical abilities, and work history. Social Security designed the grids in recognition of the fact that it's more difficult for older individuals with limited education to adjust to a new vocation.

This is where a job's skill levels (unskilled, semi-skilled, or skilled) come in. As an example, imagine a 55-year old woman with an 11th grade education and a history of semi-skilled retail sales jobs. The grid rules dictate that even if this woman has the RFC to perform sedentary work, she will nevertheless be found disabled. However, if this woman has skills that she learned as a salesperson that she could use at another type of job (called "transferable skills"), she won't be found disabled.

The ALJ will ask the vocational expert at your hearing whether you have transferable skills, which could include anything from supervisory experience to knowing how to arrange financing or take inventories. Transferable skills like these could keep you from getting an approval for disability benefits under the grid rules.

That's another reason it's important to make sure the vocational expert describes your job properly. For instance, if you never set up deliveries or conducted inventories, the vocational expert should not include these tasks in a description of your past work, and they should not be considered transferable skills. Without transferable skills, older, retired salespeople who are now limited to sedentary work should be found disabled under the grids.

How Your RFC Can Qualify You For Benefits

If you can't return to your past sales job but aren't found disabled based on the grid rules, you can still receive benefits based on your Residual Functional Capacity (RFC). If the judge determines, based on vocational expert testimony, that the physical and mental limitations listed in your RFC don't allow you to perform any full-time work in the economy, you'll be found disabled.

For example, if your RFC states that you would be absent from work two days per month, or that you would be off-task for 20% of a typical workday due to fatigue or other mental difficulties, most vocational experts would find you could not work any type of job.

However, the ALJ could decide that even though you can't do your past work as a salesperson, you could perform other "light" jobs, such as small products assembler or parking lot attendant, or even work at the sedentary level, like a surveillance systems monitor.

For more information on how Social Security makes these decisions, see our series of articles on how Social Security does an RFC analysis.

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