Your Work History: Why It's Important for Social Security Disability

Your work history tells Social Security the requirements of your old job (and whether you can do it) and whether you have any transferable skills to work at a new job.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated 6/24/2024

If you're applying for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you might not realize how important your work history is to your chances of being awarded benefits. To get SSDI and SSI, you must show that you have a severe, ongoing medical condition that prevents you from performing your current job, one of your past jobs, or any other kind of work. And your work history is critical in determining your ability to maintain gainful employment.

Why Are Your Prior Jobs and Job Skills Important?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) bases disability decisions on two things:

  • information contained in your medical records, and
  • your work history.

If your medical condition doesn't match an official SSA impairment listing, the Social Security disability claims examiner moves on to the next step in the analysis—determining whether or not you can still work.

The disability examiner, usually with the help of a medical consultant, will review your medical records to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). An RFC assessment specifies which activities you can perform and which you can't perform because of your medical impairment.

The examiner then analyzes whether your RFC allows you to return to your prior job or any relevant jobs you've done in the past five years. (Social Security previously looked as far back as 15 years when determining your relevant work history, but this has changed as of June 22, 2024.) The examiner will also consider whether you have job skills that can transfer to another type of job. Learn more about how Social Security decides if you can do any of your prior jobs.

Your Social Security Work History Report

You can improve your chances of getting your disability benefits approved by providing a detailed work history to Social Security. The SSA claims examiner will use the information you provide on the Social Security Work History Report (Form SSA-3369) to determine what kind of work you can still do.

How Social Security Uses Your Employment History

There are four kinds of information from your work history that Social Security uses to decide your disability claim. It's important to include as much detail as you can about each job you had so that the claims examiner gets a clear picture of the following:

Job description: your job titles, hours and days worked each week, your pay rate, the specific tasks you performed, the skills needed to do the job, and the work environment.

Physical requirements: how much you had to walk, stand, climb, sit, lift, and carry, as well as how much you had to kneel, bend, stoop, and crawl. The SSA will also consider how you used your hands and any equipment and tools you used.

Challenges you faced on the job: extra help you needed to perform your work duties and if you had to reduce your work hours due to your medical condition, or take frequent sick days or rest breaks.

Your medical condition's effect on your ability to perform the job: including when your medical condition began to affect your job performance, when you had to stop work, and why you had to stop.

Only Your Past Relevant Work History Will Be Considered

The SSA will consider all "past relevant work" you did in determining your ability to do some kind of gainful work now. But Social Security won't consider every job you ever had in determining your job skills. For a past job to be relevant, all of the following must be true:

  • You performed the job recently (within the past five years).
  • You were on the job at least 30 days.
  • You were on the job long enough to learn how to do it.
  • You performed the job at the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level (in 2024, this means making $1,550 a month).

(Learn about what past work is irrelevant for disability purposes.)

A Long Work History Helps Your Credibility

In addition to providing information about prior job duties and skills, a long work history can show a judge that you've been a hard worker, not someone looking for a handout. This helps your credibility at the hearing level: the judge is more likely to believe you when you talk about your pain and limitations.

In fact, federal court cases have said that "a claimant with a good work record is entitled to substantial credibility when claiming an inability to work because of a disability." Learn more about the importance of credibility in disability claims.

How to Fill Out the Work History Report for Disability

The work history form asks for your job history over the past five years, with space for you to list up to 10 jobs, along with your job titles and how long you worked at each. List every paid job you've had over the last five years—even part-time work. Don't skip any jobs, and don't include volunteer work.

The work history report includes a separate page for each job you listed. This is where you'll share the details of the job, including:

  • your job title
  • your pay rate
  • hours you worked per day
  • days you worked per week
  • your job description (everything you did each day)
  • specific job skills needed
  • physical requirements (like how long you needed to stand or how much you had to lift and how often), and
  • whether you had a supervisory role.

Be sure to answer each question. Don't leave anything blank. If you don't know the answer or the question doesn't apply to you, say so.

Also, be sure to provide accurate contact information for past supervisors. The examiner might need to call them to discuss the demands of a particular position you've listed on your work history, as well as any specific skill sets you might or might not have gained.

There's a "Remarks" section at the end of the work history report. You can use it to explain any job details you can't fit in the space provided on the job detail pages. You can also use this section to further make your case for why your impairment makes it impossible for you to perform certain job duties.

Does Your RFC Allow You to Do Your Past Work?

The claims examiner will look closely at the requirements of your prior jobs to see if you should be able to return to one of them, given your RFC or if your impairment prevents you from doing the job. If the examiner doesn't know the true requirements of each job you had, the examiner might think you're able to do a job when you're not.

For example, if your job required that you had to occasionally lift 50 pounds, but you've been given a "light RFC" due to a back injury, the examiner should find that you can't go back to the past work. But if you don't include the fact that your prior job required you to lift 50 pounds occasionally on your work history report, the examiner could decide that you should be able to return to your prior job and deny you benefits on that basis. (Learn how to prove you can't do your past work due to your RFC.)

Is There Work You Can Do Using Your Prior Job Skills?

The disability examiner will next use the SSA's medical-vocational guidelines to see if you should be expected to do other work. The SSA will look to see where you fall on its medical-vocational grid based on your age, education, prior skills, and functional limitations (RFC).

The examiner must know what job skills you learned in prior jobs to determine if your skills could be transferred to another job. Without a detailed work history, a disability examiner has to guess at the tasks associated with prior jobs.

For example, if you were an administrative assistant four years ago, the examiner could assume that:

  • you're familiar with certain scheduling or spreadsheet programs
  • you can type 65 wpm, and
  • you know how to answer multi-line phones.

The examiner could find other jobs that require these skills and assume you could do that work (meaning that you'd be denied benefits because that type of job is hypothetically available).

You don't want the claims examiner to assume you have skills you don't. If the examiner knows you don't have certain skills, the jobs the SSA would assume you can do would be much more limited. (Learn how to prove you don't have the job skills for other work.)

Do the Medical-Vocational Guidelines Help?

The medical-vocational rules, which take into account prior job skills and whether they're transferable, are supposed to make the disability determination process more objective and fair. Unfortunately, despite the existence of the medical-vocational grid, the decision to approve or deny disability is largely subjective—a disability examiner will take information from the grid and match it up to your work history, then decide if there are jobs that the examiner "feels" you can still do.

Plus, while the guidelines make disability decisions more uniform across the states, they don't guarantee that the job a disability examiner says you're capable of performing is actually available in your area. Still, having medical-vocational guidelines in place allows an administrative law judge (ALJ) at an appeal hearing to overturn a claims examiner's opinion based on the guidelines, if appropriate.

Getting Help With Your Work History Report for Social Security

Social Security will use the information contained on your work history report to determine whether or not you can work at any type of job. So, it's critical that you don't skip any details about your past jobs and how your condition affects your ability to perform the necessary work tasks.

Along with physical impairments, you'll want to show how any non-exertional limitations you have affect your ability to perform your job duties—like mental health issues, problems with concentration or learning new tasks, or environmental restrictions. Don't skip any details.

Before you complete a work history report for Social Security, you might benefit from speaking with an experienced disability lawyer who can help you ensure your work history report truly demonstrates how your impairment(s) affect your ability to work.

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