Why Work History Is Important When Applying for Disability Benefits

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When a claimant files for disability, whether filing for VA and/or Social Security Disability Benefits, his or her work history is always very important in the proceedings.  The relevancy somewhat differs in the VA context versus Social Security; however, the common thread is that a person’s past work, or lack thereof, will usually somehow play a role in the ultimate outcome of the claim.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines past relevant work as “work that you have done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for you to learn to do it.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560. Past relevant work is extremely important in Social Security Disability cases. Basically, SSA will review any work performed within 15 years prior to deciding your case, in order to determine if you are capable of returning to any of your past relevant work. In order to determine if you are capable of returning to your past work, SSA will consider several factors, such as:

  • any job skills you may have acquired
  • tools or machines you may have used (i.e. computers,  special equipment, etc.)
  • the number of hours per week you worked and your rate of pay (i.e. full time v. part-time v. seasonal, etc.)
  • the physical aspects of your job (i.e. sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, and postural requirements)
  • the mental aspects of your job (i.e. stress demands, multi-tasking, etc.).
  • any supervisory or lead worker responsibilities

If SSA determines that you are capable of returning to past work as you performed it, even with your disabilities, then they will find that you are not disabled, and your claim will be denied.  Even if you are not capable of returning to past work as you performed it, then SSA will go on to consider if you are capable of performing any of your past work as it is “generally performed” in the national economy, and if not, whether you are able to adjust to other work in the national economy considering your age, education and past work experience.  Again, if you are able to adjust to other work, then your claim will be denied.

As a practical matter, work history matters to the Administrative Law Judges (ALJ).  Most ALJ’s will look at a claimant’s work history to see if they have a strong work record. If a person has worked and paid into the Social Security system on a consistent basis, and then all of a sudden the earnings stop or are substantially reduced, that may be a favorable indication to the ALJ that the person is legitimately disabled. In my experiences, many ALJ’s believe that most people with strong work backgrounds would not stop working unless there was a good reason. However, if a claimant does not have a strong work record, some ALJ’s take that as an indication that a claimant is trying to obtain the benefit of Social Security Disability, without ever really contributing to the system in a meaningful way.

In the VA context, the relevance of work history is viewed differently. The VA does not evaluate a veteran’s past work in order to determine as a threshold matter whether or not the veteran is eligible for service connected disability benefits.  So for example, a veteran can be working full time or be  capable of doing so and still be eligible for VA service connected benefits. This is because VA rates disabilities based on the average impairment in earning capacity resulting from the disability, in 10 percent increments. So, a veteran can be “partially” disabled with the VA, meaning it is not an all or nothing determination, unlike in the Social Security context.  In Social Security, either you are disabled or you’re not.

However, it should be noted that past work history is still used by the VA in a number of other contexts, such as evaluating the origin or severity of impairments, determining eligibility for total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU) benefits, and in determining eligibility for non-service connected pension. For example, when evaluating mental impairments, the VA treating providers and C&P examiners will often look to a veteran’s past work history to determine if the mental condition at issue has affected the veteran’s ability to obtain and/or sustain gainful employment.  For example, does the veteran have a history of getting fired from jobs (i.e. due to inability to deal with stress, temper flare ups), a history excessive absenteeism, a history of sheltered employment, etc.  If so, these factors may indicate a severe mental impairment that warrants a higher disability rating versus someone who has been able to successfully maintain employment over the years. Similarly, if a veteran is claiming service connection for a back condition; however, his or her post military work has been as a construction worker or heavy laborer, a claim for service connection will likely prove more difficult.

In the TDIU context, the VA adjudicators will often look at the veteran’s Social Security earnings record to determine if the veteran is still working at a substantially gainful level, which would make the veteran ineligible for TDIU benefits.  The same concept applies to eligibility for non-service connected pension.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that your work history matters.  It can affect your eligibility for disability benefits and also the determination as to how severe your disabilities are rated. Therefore, it is extremely important for Social Security claimants and veterans to think about how their disabilities have affected their work over the years, and to communicate those thoughts to their representatives in order to ensure that the claim is presented in the best manner before SSA or the VA. Knowing why your work history is important is a large part of the battle.

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