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At Step 4 of Social Security’s sequential evaluation, the SSA considers the claimant’s ability to perform their past relevant work, both as actually performed and as generally performed in the national economy. That means that Social Security will evaluate your ability to do the jobs you have had over the past 15 years, both as described in your work history report and as generally performed.

If the job you had as a cashier was more demanding physically than that job is generally, and you could perform the job as generally performed, you will not be awarded disability benefits. On the face of it, this is a fair rule. But in practice, problems arise.

The first problem is that, to determine how a particular job is generally performed, Social Security refers to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), a Department of Labor publication that hasn’t been updated since 1991 (and many jobs in the DOT date back to the 1970’s). So the description of a job’s requirements may be woefully outdated. I had this issue at a hearing recently, where an office-type job description in the DOT dated back to before there were PCs in the office, and before the internet. The job today is all about working on a computer and keyboarding, in a way the job wasn’t performed 30+ years ago. It took a lot of cajoling to get the vocational expert at the hearing to acknowledge that the job had evolved over time from its DOT description, and now required extensive use of the hands (which was a problem for my 63-year old client with severe psoriatic arthritis).

The disparity between the reality in the workplace and the dated job desciptions in DOT continues to grow with time. The issue has started to garner some media attention because of its unfairness. Claims are being denied using outdated vocational information.

Another problem is that a disability examiner at DDS may select a job title in the Dictionary of Occupational TItles that has the same name as the job performed by the claimant, but is a actually a different job.

For example, I was recently retained by a client whose claim was denied at the initial review because she listed a past job as a warehouse supervisor. The job she described in the work history report was a lead worker in a warehouse. She lifted and carried heavy stuff all day. She was in charge of the other workers on her shift, so she had the title of supervisor. She therefore listed “warehouse supervisor” as the name of her job on her Work History Report. However, the job title of “warehouse supervisor” in the DOT is listed as a Light job – a person who mostly directs the activity of others, and is not lifting and carrying heavy stuff themself. Her claim was denied, because based upon the initial DDS assessment, she was able to do the warehouse supervisor job as generally performed.

This is a fixable problem at the Reconsideration level. After identifying the mistake, explaining the misunderstanding to the new disability examiner, and providing more detailed work history information about that job, the claim was granted based upon the physical limitations that had already been assessed. That was the correct determination. But I see variations on this theme over and over again.

These Step 4 issues are particularly important for claimants who are over the age of 55, who  are physically limited to light exertional work or less, and who do not have job skills that transfer to a significant range of jobs within their abilities. For these claimants, once the past relevant work is ruled out, the claim will be granted at Step 5 under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. It is the same reasoning and result for claimants who are over the age of 50, who  are physically limited to sedentary exertional work or less, and who do not have job skills that transfer to a significant range of jobs within their abilities.