Injured Carpenter Qualifies for Disability Benefits – A Lesson on Vocational Grids
Pete was a carpenter by trade, and a craftsman by design. He took great pride in his work and enjoyed building beautifully detailed cabinetry.
One winter day, Pete slipped on a patch of ice on his driveway, and fell flat on his back – hard. It took months for Pete to be able to sit up and walk around. But he didn’t recover well. He could not sit for very long and he couldn’t lift a hammer to drive a nail without pain in his back. His doctor told him that he could never go back to carpentry work. In fact, he could only do, what the doctor called, sedentary work. He advised Pete to apply for Social Security disability benefits, and said he would medically support his application.
Pete is 53 years old. He’s worked as a carpenter ever since high school. He is an artisan, but he has no other work skills. Because he met all the eligibility requirements for disability benefits, and because he was able to prove his disability, his case was approved. However, if Pete had been a younger man, his case may have had a very different outcome.
That’s because age, education and past work experience are all factored into deciding a disability case, and here’s why.
You Say You’re Disabled – SSA Must Agree with You
When you apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for disability benefits, you’re claiming that you have a medical condition that makes it impossible for you to work. SSA must decide if they agree with you.
SSA will agree rather quickly that you are disabled if your condition matches one that SSA has identified as a disabling impairment. But, what if it doesn’t clearly meet one of these listings? How will SSA decide if you are disabled?
SSA’s Rules for Determining Disability – Vocational Grids
SSA will turn to a set of complicated rules called “vocational guidelines,” sometimes referred to by SSA as “the grids,” to determine if you are disabled. They are called “the grids” because the rules are organized into a grid of tables that are organized by these key components:
- Physical work capacity
- Work history
The “grids” are specifically designed to guide SSA into following the same evaluation criteria for all disability cases that do not clearly meet SSA’s qualifying list of impairments. SSA used the grids to help determine Pete’s case.
Physical Work Capacity
SSA categorizes physical work into levels of exertion: very heavy, heavy, medium, light, and sedentary with defining criteria for each level.
The physical work capacity rule is for SSA to determine from your medical evidence what you can still physically do. This is called residual functional capacity.
Pete’s doctor said he could only do sedentary work. By SSA’s definition of sedentary, this meant that Pete could only sit for up to six hours and he couldn’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds. His residual work capacity was defined as “sedentary.”
Once your physical ability to work is established, SSA reviews your work history to see if your residual work capacity matches the level of any of the types of jobs you have had in the past 15 years.
For example, if SSA has determined that you can perform light work, and you performed a light-work job for more than a year, based on the vocational rule, your case will be denied. Why? Because you have the capacity for light work and can return to a light-work job.
However, if you never performed light work in the past, and your medical condition makes it impossible for you to return to the work you once did, the next two vocational guidelines are factored into the disability equation. This was the next step for Pete’s case because he had never done another type of work.
Age and Education
SSA recognizes that the older a person is, the less ability they have to retrain into different work. This reasoning is based on basic realities of today’s work force:
- The older you are, the harder it is to find a job, particularly if you’re over the age of 50
- The lower your education level and the fewer job skills you’ve developed within your lifetime, the harder it will be for you to retrain into a different occupation.
SSA breaks down age into four defining categories:
- 49 and under – younger individuals
- 50-54: approaching advanced age
- 55-59: advanced age
- 60-64: approaching retirement
SSA also breaks down education into:
- years of school completed
- trade or vocational training
- special on-the-job training
Similar Cases – Different Outcomes
Let’s say that you’re a 55-year-old male construction worker with a high school education and a residual functional capacity to perform light work. This means that you can handle walking and standing for up to six hours and can lift 10 pounds and sometimes 20 pounds. Based on SSA’s age and education breakdown and the realities of getting hired, it would stand to reason that it would be harder for you to retrain for a light job and find one. However, if you are a 27-year-old construction worker with the same level of education and capacity for light work, SSA would most likely not find you disabled. Again, this is because it would be assumed that you are young enough to learn a different occupation and it would be easier for you to find work because of your young age.
Actually, the younger you are, the harder it is to prove disability. Had Pete been 35 years old, he probably would not be found disabled. This is because SSA would have expected him, based on his age and education, to retrain into a sedentary-level job.
Convince SSA You Can’t Work with Proof
I’ve only given you a general overview of the vocational rules that all disability examiners and SSA-appointed medical consultants must strictly follow to determine disability cases. Keep in mind that there are many complex variables involved in deciding a disability case. For example, if you’re not specific enough on how you answer SSA’s questionnaire about your functionality, your answers could work against you. So can insufficient medical evidence.
You must have convincing proof to support why you can’t work. Otherwise, you can seriously risk your chances of getting approved, no matter how old you are. This is why I recommend getting the help of one of our expert disability advocates to develop a strong case for you. Just ask Pete. He was one of our claimants.