A vocational expert (VE) is an "expert witness" called by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to testify at your disability appeal hearing. A VE knows about job availability in the current labor market and the skills needed to perform certain jobs. A VE is present at about 85% of disability hearings.
In response to questions by the administrative law judge (ALJ), the vocational expert gives his or her opinion about what jobs you can perform, given your limitations. The testimony of a vocational expert is vital because the VE's opinion about your ability to work usually determines the outcome of your case (unless your medical condition matches an impairment listing).
At your hearing, the judge, and your attorney or nonattorney representative (if you are represented) will ask you questions about your disability and questions about your work history. The vocational expert will then classify each of your relevant prior jobs to determine whether you can do your past job, and if not, what transferable skills you have.
Next, both the ALJ and your representative will ask the VE a series of questions, called hypotheticals, based on your documented impairments. The first question usually asked by the ALJ is whether someone with your documented impairments could still do your old job. If the VE thinks you can still do your past work, the ALJ will deny your claim. (Learn how to prove you can't do your prior job.)
If the VE testifies that you can no longer do your past work, the ALJ and your representative will then ask the VE more hypotheticals to see if you can do any other jobs. A hypothetical for a person with severe spinal stenosis may look like this:
"What jobs, if any, could a person of the same age, education, and with the same work history as the claimant be able to do if he or she could lift no more than 10 pounds on a regular basis, could stand no more than 30 minutes, was unable to kneel or bend, and needed to lay down periodically throughout the day."
The VE will then testify as to what jobs, if any, a person who has the work-related limitations described in the hypothetical could do. If the VE believes there are jobs the hypothetical person can perform, he or she will state the job titles, their codes, and the number of the jobs (including filled positions) in the area near where you live. If the VE testifies that there are still jobs the person can do despite having your work-related impairments, your claim will be denied.
If you are represented, your attorney will be allowed to ask the VE follow-up questions after the ALJ has finished asking questions. Your attorney will try to rule out the jobs that the VE stated someone with your limitations could do, often by including some limitations that the judge left out of the hypothetical. Your attorney's goal is to try to get the VE to say that there are no jobs available that you can do.
For example, if the VE stated that you could do an administrative assistant's job, your attorney could ask the VE whether someone who could not stoop or bend could do an administrative assistant's job. The VE would probably answer no. If your inability to stoop or bend is documented in your medical records, and there are no jobs left that the VE has testified that you can do, your claim will be approved.
This is the most important part of the hearing: the cross-examination of the vocational expert. If you don't challenge the VE's opinion on what jobs you can do, you'll likely lose your hearing. Recent government statistics show that claimants are approved for benefits less often when there is a VE at the hearing (80% as often as claimants without a VE at the hearing.)
It takes experience with disability hearings and knowledge of Social Security law to ask the questions that will successfully rule out all the jobs the VE said you could do. To avoid losing your hearing based on the VE's testimony, consider hiring an experienced disability lawyer to represent you in your appeal hearing.