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Social Security considers your Past Relevant Work (PRW) at step 4 of the sequential evaluation process. It is important to properly define your past relevant work, because it can only hurt you in a Social Security disability claim. If Social Security determines that you have the capacity to return to your PRW, your disability claim will be denied.

But not all past work qualifies as past relevant work. Past relevant work is "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(b)(1). Let's look at each requirement:

  • First, past relevant work must be in the past 15 years. The 15 years runs back from the date of determination, or from the date last insured, whichever is earlier.
  • Second, past work must have been substantial gainful activity to qualify as PRW. If you were an employee, the work must have been performed at the SGA level. If you were self-employed, see 20 C.F.R. 404.1575. Remember that an unsuccessful work attempt is not substantial gainful activity and therefore not past relevant work. By definition, an unsuccessful work attempt must occur after the onset of disability. See 20 C.F.R. 404.1574(c).
  • Third, the work must have "lasted long enough for you to learn to do it." Unskilled work can be learned in less than 30 days. Skilled work takes longer. The length of time depends on the nature and complexity of the work. There are no firm rules here, but the vocational training times set forth in the Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) section of Appendix C of the DOT are a good guide.

These rules are important. For certain claims, eliminating a problematic job from past relevant work can make the difference between winning and losing.