A lot of veterans think that not being able to get or hold a job is enough for them to prove to the VA that they are unemployable. Unfortunately, this is just a myth. The reality is much more complicated. Another myth is that having a statement from a doctor, especially a VA doctor, saying that you cannot work, should be proof of unemployability. But again, this is not the reality. When it comes to proving unemployability, there is a certain level that the VA looks at to determine if a veteran is eligible for this benefit, regardless of their disability rating. This level of eligibility is functional impairment.
Functional impairment means that the veteran’s functional capacity is so impaired by his or her disabilities that he or she is unable to secure or maintain substantial employment. There are a few parts to this definition we need to explore to get the entire picture.
First is the functioning. Functioning is not based on what the veteran did before as a job. So if a veteran was a painter or a construction worker, having a back injury may not make him unemployable if he is found able to work at a sedentary job such as sitting at a desk. Unfortunately, for many veterans who have worked in a specific field for most of their lives, changing careers means new training if they are to transition from a physical to a sedentary position. While Vocational Rehab offers training programs and college education for those who qualify, it is often not a viable option for many veterans because they are not able to make that transition due to other factors that the VA does not take into account when looking at unemployability. Factors such as concentration, ability to retain and follow instructions, adaptability to change, dealing with people, dealing with pain, absenteeism due to sick days and medical appointments, etc. should all be taken into account when the VA is looking at a claim for unemployability.
Securing and Maintaining Employment
Second is being unable to secure or maintain employment. This means that the veteran may not only be able to get a job but may not be able to maintain employment either. Therefore, if a veteran gets hired but then loses his jobs often, this may make him eligible for unemployability if the reasons the veteran loses his jobs are related to his disability. Often employers have been known to shy away from hiring veterans due to the perception that they may be disabled. This, unfortunately, is not a case for unemployability. If a veteran is not hired simply because he has a disability, this is again, not a case for unemployability. If, however, a veteran is not hired or is terminated, because his disability keeps him from doing the job, then it becomes a case for unemployability. For example, Joe is rated as 70% disabled due to back and knee problems. He works as an engineer and is on his feet all day. His workplace allows him a redesigned space where he is able to sit and work. He is still able to do his job so he is employable. If his workplace did not make the accommodation, he would still be able to do his job just not in that environment, and he is still considered employable. But what if Joe is unable to sit to do his job? After physical therapy and surgery, it is determined that Joe has to lay down several times a day and take strong painkillers that inhibit his concentration. Now Joe has possibly become unemployable.
The last part is sustainable employment. Sustainable employment means that it pays above the poverty threshold for a single person with no dependents. This figure fluctuates each year, but for 2017 is $12,060. If a veteran is working but makes less than $12,060 in the year 2017 or less than the threshold for previous years, they may be eligible for unemployability.
Employment Rates for Disabled Veterans
According to the ADA Website that tracks employment data for the disabled, veterans are employed at a very low rate. Veterans with no service-connected disabilities are only employed at a rate of 72%; 68% for those with a 0-40% rating; 58% for those rated 50-60%; and only 25% of those with a 70% or higher rating are employed. Ensuring that these unemployed veterans have the income to sustain them is imperative and the least they deserve after giving so much to their country. While there are many programs out there designed to hire disabled veterans, there are not enough to employ every unemployed veteran who wants to work. Working with local employers to help make accommodations, educate them on how to work with disabled veterans, and designing work programs that work around disabilities is needed to ensure the vast growing number of disabled veterans will have a place in our workforce in the future.
You may also want to review our VA Unemployability Guide.