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What does Social Security mean by “past relevant work?”

Many people apply for Social Security Disability when their conditions have prevented them from doing the type of work that they used to do. This is especially true when one has a very physical job, such as construction, and then develops physical problems such as back injuries that prevent them from continuing their previous job. This can also occur when one has a very mentally demanding or highly skilled job that their conditions make difficult to complete. But what role does your past work play in determining your eligibility for Social Security Disability benefits?

To answer this question, it is first important to have an understanding of the evaluation process which Social Security follows when they determine whether you are eligible for benefits. Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are funded by payroll taxes and are available to those who have a medical condition that has lasted or is expected to last for at least twelve months or result in death which has kept them from continuing normal work activity. Social Security first needs to confirm that you are no longer engaging in substantial gainful activity after the date of your disability. This means that either you have stopped working completely, or you are earning less than the maximum amount set forth per month by Social Security to maintain eligibility to be considered for disability. In 2022, that monthly maximum gross allowable is $1,350. Then, Social Security will determine whether you have a severe impairment. Social Security will make this determination by reviewing your medical records, including hospitalizations, doctor’s notes, medications, imaging reports such as X-rays or MRIs, and ongoing therapy notes such as from physical therapy. If there are not enough medical records for Social Security to make a determination regarding the severity of your impairments, you may be sent for an examination with one of the doctors contracted with the local disability office. These evaluations are free of charge to you; however, it is preferable to have treatment records from your own medical providers. Once Social Security has confirmed that you have a severe impairment, the agency will determine your residual functional capacity, which is your ability to perform such activities as walk, stand, sit, lift, or use your hands for both fine and gross motor movements over an 8-hour period. If your impairments are mental health-related, these limitations may include difficulties with focus and concentration or interactions with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. Once your residual functional capacity is determined, Social Security will determine if you can return to your past work. If you are unable to perform your past work, Social Security will then determine whether there is other work that you can do. If not, you will be found disabled.

Social Security applies certain rules when determining whether a job that you used to do counts as “past work.” First, Social Security will only look at jobs which you have performed within the last fifteen years. If you performed a job prior to that timeframe, it should not be listed on your Social Security Disability application. Second, the work must count as substantial gainful activity – the requirements for “substantial gainful activity” are the same as noted above, where the monthly earnings from the job must have exceeded a certain minimum amount per month. This amount is updated on an annual basis by Social Security. For example, if you performed a job in 2020 but only earned a gross amount of $500 per month in that job, that would not count as substantial gainful activity, as the threshold for substantial gainful activity in 2020 was $1,260 gross per month. Third, you must have performed the job long enough to learn to do it. Thus, if you only worked off and on over the past fifteen years, and your jobs were of short duration, Social Security will likely not consider those jobs when evaluating whether there are past jobs that you may be able to return to doing.

Social Security has different methods for determining whether you can perform your past work. One is whether you are able to perform your past job as you actually performed it. When applying for disability benefits, you will complete a work history form, where you provide your job title, job duties, number of hours that you spend standing and sitting, the average weight which you frequently lifted or carried throughout the day, and the heaviest weight that you had to lift in the job. For the purposes of evaluating your past work, “frequently” means that you performed the activity between 1/3 and 2/3 of the workday. You will also be asked to provide information about whether you used any special equipment, whether you prepared reports, whether you used computers, and whether you hired and fired other employees. If Social Security finds that you are able to perform your job as you actually performed it according to your description, you will not be found disabled. Therefore, it is very important that you provide specific details about what you were required to do at the job.

Another method Social Security uses is to determine whether you are able to perform the job as it is ordinarily required by employers. When classifying your previous work, Social Security refers to a resource known as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles or DOT. This is essentially a listing of jobs and their physical and mental requirements. The DOT was last updated in 1991; therefore, the way that the job is performed in the national economy may differ from how it was classified in the DOT. However, it must be established that the way you performed the job is standard throughout the industry and not just a special circumstance that was unique to your previous employer’s requirements.

Social Security’s rules regarding past work have a lot of intricacies, and it is difficult to navigate this process on your own. You are more likely to succeed in your disability claim if you retain an experienced Social Security Disability Lawyer to represent you in the process. Call LaBovick Law Group at (561) 625-8400 for a free case evaluation.

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