Is My Past Work Relevant To My Disability Claim?

The type of work you have done has a significant impact on your disability claim

Social Security Administration utilizes an important term they call Past Relevant Work (PRW). Basically, this refers to your work experience. To be found disabled under Social Security rules, you must not have the ability to perform your past relevant work. There are other criteria that need to be satisfied in the five-step sequential evaluation process that Social Security utilizes to evaluate a claim, but a key requirement at Step 4 of the evaluation is that you cannot do what you used to do for work due to your medical conditions.

If you can perform your prior work (on a full-time, competitive basis), you will not be found disabled under Social Security rules. So, determining what type of work you have done is critical. Specifically, Social Security will look at any type of work you did in a meaningful manner in the 15 year period immediately preceding your Alleged Onset Date (AOD).

For example, if you claim to have become disabled on January 1, 2015, Social Security will categorize all of the jobs you performed from 2000 – 2014. Any job(s) performed prior to this period is not considered relevant because it was not performed recently enough to have retained the skills necessary to perform the job now. Also, jobs that were performed for only a few weeks or months, or below the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level, are generally not considered relevant and will not count because you did not perform them long enough to develop the skills necessary to perform them on a full-time, competitive basis. Once your list of relevant work is finalized, these jobs will be classified by both exertional level and by skill level.

For example, a Nurse works at the Medium exertional level and the position is considered Skilled, while a Security Guard works at the Light exertional level and the position is considered Semi-Skilled. Once all of your PRW has been classified, the adjudicator must then determine whether you have the functional ability to perform any of your past work. For example, if the Security Guard’s back pain prevents him or her from being able to stand and walk as is required for jobs at the Light exertional level, he or she may be unable to perform Security Guard work if the medical records support this finding. If, on the other hand, the adjudicator determines you can still perform the functions required in your past work, you will be found Not Disabled and denied.

So, getting the correct list of what work you did during this 15 year period is critical. For example, if you worked for a telemarketing company, but you performed physical labor (unloading trucks, or renovating office space, etc.) then it is critical that SSA understands you did not perform Sedentary work, but that you performed Very Heavy work. The reason is simple: it is much easier to prove that someone cannot do Very Heavy work due to their medical conditions than it is to prove someone cannot perform a sit down job, especially if their medical conditions are primarily physical in nature (such as back pain, COPD, heart conditions, etc.).

It should be noted that, generally speaking, if you are under 50 years old, in addition to not having the ability to perform any past relevant work, you must also not possess the ability to perform any type of work due to your medical condition(s). So, in reality, while Social Security reviews past relevant work for all claims, it generally only matters if you are over 50 years of age, because that is when the Vocational-Medical Guidelines (or Grid Rules) come into play at Step 5 of the five-step sequential evaluation process.

This is the step at which many individuals younger than age 50 are declined benefits due to this rule. We often hear (from people under 50 years old), “I’ve done construction my whole life. I can’t do construction anymore, so I am disabled.” This conclusion is inconsistent with the evaluation process employed by Social Security, so this individual will not qualify for benefits, unless he or she cannot perform any other type of work. It does not in reality matter that they only did very heavy construction work; if they are able to be a ticket-taker at a movie theatre, they would be found Not Disabled.

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