Social Security disability hearings are typically pretty straightforward affairs for claimants.
And administrative law judge will ask you about your work history, your recent medical treatment, and things you do on a typical day.
But there is one aspect of these hearings that confuses many claimants.
After the judge takes testimony from you, he or she then turns to what’s called a vocational expert for additional testimony.
The vocational expert is considered an expert witness, knowledgeable about jobs in the regional and national economy. Vocational experts typically spend years studying all types of jobs and assisting people with job placement.
While vocational experts receive a fee for their testimony from the Social Security Administration, they are independent and not actual employees of Social Security.
Vocational expert testimony is based on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, a Department of Labor publication that classifies the skill level of all jobs in the economy and their exertional level. Exertional levels range from sedentary office jobs to very heavy construction jobs.
At a disability hearing, the judge asks the vocational expert a series of hypothetical questions based on a claimant’s medical records and testimony to determine whether a claimant can perform past work or any other jobs in the national economy.
A typical question might be, “Could an individual of the claimant’s age, education, and work history perform his past work if he is limited to light work?”
If the past work was heavy or medium work, the vocational expert would testify the past work is not available, but would likely testify that other jobs are available in the national economy.
If the judge uses a hypothetical in which jobs are available when it’s time to write a final decision, it’s likely that a claim for disability benefits will be denied.
However, the rules change for claimants who are over 50 and then 55-years-old.
In some cases, a vocational expert may testify to the availability of light, unskilled jobs, but if a 55-year-old claimant’s past work was only skilled or medium or heavy in nature, he will still be found disabled under Social Security’s Grid Rules.
Ultimately, vocational expert testimony can be one of the trickier parts of the disability process, so if you have a hearing coming up, it’s important to have an experienced disability attorney on your side who can guide you through the process and understands what questions to ask a vocational expert.