How Does the SSA Determine If I Can Do My Past Work and Why Does it Matter?

By Michelle Shvarts
Principal Attorney

There are two large federal programs that provide assistance to individuals with disabilities. These programs are Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. The two programs have significant differences, but also some similarities as well. For instance, both of them are administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Both of them are only for individuals that have a disability and meet specific medical criteria to qualify for program benefits.

To determine whether an individual has a qualifying disability for disability benefits, the SSA employs a five-step process. The last two steps zero in on a person’s past work experience and whether he or she is still able to do this type of work or is able to adjust to new work. Here, we will talk about how the SSA determines if you can still engage in past work and why this matters.

How Does the SSA Determine If I Can Do My Past Work and Why Does it Matter?

To determine whether you are disabled and, therefore, may qualify for disability benefits, the SSA needs to determine whether you are able, despite your claimed conditions, able to perform past work. To make this determination, the SSA will need to know the details of how you performed your past jobs and whether you learned any skills on your past jobs. The SSA will not consider you disabled if it is determined that you are still able to perform your past work or that your condition does not prevent you from adjusting to and engaging in other work.

Step 4 of the SSA process to determine whether a person is disabled for disability benefit purposes is whether you can do the work you did previously. In this step of the process, the SSA reviews the duties and demands of your most recent past work activities. These are then looked at against the assessment of your remaining abilities to engage in basic work activities.

Recent past work that the SSA will look to will usually involve those jobs that you did in the 15 years prior to applying for disability benefits and required significant physical or mental activities that were done for profit. The SSA will only look to those jobs that you maintained for a length of time necessary to learn how to execute your job responsibilities.

For past work deemed relevant for the step 4 analysis, the SSA will go on to compare your current capacity to work with how you actually did your past relevant work. It will also compare your current capacity to work with how your past relevant work is usually done on the broader national economy scale.

Once these comparisons are complete, the SSA will render a decision. If the SSA finds that you can still do your past work as you actually did it or as it is generally done in the national economy, then the SSA will find that you are not disabled for disability benefits purposes. If the SSA finds that you are not physically and mentally able to do any of your past relevant work, either as you did it or as it is generally done in the national economy, then the SSA will move on to step 5 of its 5 step disability determination process. Step 5 will involve rendering a decision on whether you can engage in types of work other than that which you have done in the past.

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About the Author
Ms. Shvarts is the managing attorney for Disability Advocates Group. She opened Disability Advocates Group to assist individuals who became disabled and unable to work to obtain the benefits they need and deserve.  Ms. Shvarts and the rest of the team at Disability Advocates Group are dedicated to assisting individuals obtain Social Security Disability Benefits (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.