Social Security disability benefits are awarded to people who have medical conditions that prevent them from working. While administrative law judges (ALJs) are familiar with the regulations that determine disability, they usually need help when it comes to knowing what types of jobs exist that a disability applicant ("claimant") might be able to perform.
This is where the vocational expert comes in. Because disability hearings often turn on whether any jobs exist that the claimant can do, the ALJ will need to ask an expert on occupations—called a vocational expert (VE)—questions about the current labor market and what skills are needed to perform certain jobs.
Ultimately, the ALJ—not the VE—decides whether you're disabled. But in order to do that, the ALJ needs to ask the vocational expert about the impact your residual functional capacity (RFC) has on your ability to work. Your RFC is a set of limitations that describe the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment.
ALJs have a general understanding of which limitations in an RFC rule out all jobs, but the Social Security Administration (SSA) requires them to consult with a VE before making a decision. Because VEs know more about job duties and employment data than ALJs do, their opinion about whether any jobs exist that somebody with your RFC could perform can determine the outcome of your case.
Vocational experts are present in 85% of disability hearings. As expert witnesses, they play two main roles:
Usually, the VE will review your work history report before the hearing and classify your past work using a Department of Labor publication known as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). The DOT categorizes jobs according to their physical demands (the "exertional level") and their mental demands (the "skill level"). Each job is assigned a specific number called the DOT code.
The judge will ask the VE to provide the DOT codes for your past jobs using information from your work history report as well as any new details you provided during the hearing. Depending on how comprehensive your work history report is, the VE may ask you directly to clarify your job duties.
Here's an example of a common exchange during vocational expert testimony about past work:
Along with the DOT, the VE has additional software tools (OccuBrowse and Job Browse Pro are the most popular programs) that help determine the number of jobs available under a particular DOT code. Because judges need to decide if jobs exist in significant numbers that an applicant can do, consulting the VE to get these numbers is key.
In order for ALJs to determine whether any jobs exist that you can do despite your current limitations, they need to ask the VE several hypothetical RFC questions. A hypothetical RFC question is simply a "what if" about restrictions that a person might have in the work environment.
Nearly all hypotheticals begin the same way: "Assume an individual of the claimant's age, education, work experience, and the following limitations." The ALJ then lists some functional restrictions that the judge thinks might best reflect your limitations according to your testimony and your medical record. After describing a set of limitations, the ALJ will ask the VE "Can an individual with those restrictions perform the claimant's past work?"
The VE compares the hypothetical RFC with the RFC that's required to perform your past work and answers either yes or no. The judge will then ask "Can an individual with those restrictions perform any other job in the national economy?" The vocational expert either provides names and DOT codes of jobs that fall within the abilities of that RFC, or tells the judge that no jobs exist for somebody with those limitations.
ALJs often ask several hypotheticals of the VE because they need to find out how a particular set of limitations affects employability. Here's an example:
Because of the technical nature of VE testimony, this part of the hearing tends to be more of a conversation between the VE, the claimant's representative, and the ALJ. Input from claimants is rarely needed.
Don't be too worried if, during the hearing, the VE lists several jobs in response to an ALJ hypothetical question. At this point, the hypothetical questions are still just "what-ifs." When writing the decision, the ALJ will choose which hypothetical RFC best represents your limitations. If you have an RFC that rules out all work, the judge will write a favorable decision (an approval).
You still can—and should—challenge the VE testimony at the hearing in a process called cross-examination. If you have a representative, your attorney will be allowed to ask the VE follow-up questions after the ALJ has finished. Your attorney will try to rule out any jobs that the VE listed in response to the ALJ's hypotheticals, often by including some limitations that the judge left out.
Here's an example of how your attorney might cross-examine a VE:
Conducting a successful cross-examination as a claimant is very difficult. You need 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.
Updated September 15, 2022
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