Most people are aware that a successful disability claim depends in part on the severity of an individual’s medical impairments and related symptoms. However, the work that you have performed in the past is also an important factor in determining disability. Every successful disability adjudication requires the applicant to show that they cannot perform their “past relevant work”. Depending on your age, education, and whether or not you acquired any particular skills in your past work, you may also need to show that you cannot perform other types of work as well. There are additional blog posts dealing with the specifics of the Medical Vocational “grid” Rules that detail when and what types of other work must be ruled out depending on these factors. However, all disability claimants must show they cannot perform their “past relevant work”.
When Social Security uses the term “past relevant work”, they are referring to work that was 1) performed within 15 years of the date that you allege you became disabled; and 2) in which you earned over a certain amount of money per month. Work that exceeds this amount is known as work performed at the “substantial gainful activity” (SGA) level. The amount of money that constitutes SGA generally increases slightly each year. The past relevant work that you have done can make it more or less likely that you are found disabled. For example, if all of your past relevant work consisted of lifting heavy objects and you are applying for disability due to back problems, you would have a better chance of ruling out your ability to perform past work than if your past work consisted of office jobs that did not require any lifting or standing.
If your application for benefits is denied and you ultimately end up before an administrative law judge, there will be a vocational expert present at your hearing who will testify about the nature of your past work and the physical and mental requirements of such work. The vocational expert generally has educational and professional credentials in vocational rehabilitation and have placed people with injuries and disabilities into the workforce. The vocational expert is aware of the lifting, standing, sitting, handling, fingering, and other physical functions required by various jobs, as well as the job skills and social interaction required by various jobs (Note: there are other posts on the Midwest Disability blog that go into greater detail about the vocational expert and her function at disability hearings). Not only will the judge ask questions of the vocational expert, but your attorney will also cross examine the vocational expert. There are many reasons to hire an attorney to help you with your claim, but one of the more important functions of a skilled disability attorney is to expose any inconsistencies or illogical statements in the vocational expert’s testimony in order to demonstrate that the claimant cannot perform their past relevant work.