The process of applying for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA) can be confusing. To qualify, you first must have worked in jobs in which you paid into Social Security. Then, you must have a condition or combination of conditions that meets the SSA’s definition of disability.
The SSA follows a five-step sequential process to determine if a person is disabled:
- A person cannot earn more than $1,220 a month from working (gainful employment) when claiming disability;
- A person must have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits their ability to basic work and is expected to last for at least 12 months or result in death (note that you can apply for disability benefits before you have been disabled for 12 months);
- Social Security will review whether a person’s condition meets all of the requirements for a condition on SSA’s list of disabling conditions or has other factors that equal a condition on that list;
- If note, then the medical impairment must prevent them from performing any of their past work; and
- They must not be able to do any other type of work, considering their impairment, age, education, past work experience and any transferable skills (this last step requires Social Security to identify other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy).
For many people, one of the most difficult parts of this process is the determination of whether they can perform any other type of work. If the SSA determines that you can do another type of work, subject to a few age-related rules — such as light duty or sedentary duty work — then you will not qualify for benefits.
For this reason, for most people, it is vitally important to prove to the SSA that you cannot do sedentary work. Learn more about the process from a disability lawyer.
What Is Sedentary Work?
According to the SSA, sedentary work includes jobs that are mostly seated, but may include standing and walking for 2 hours or less each day. These positions require lifting no more than 10 pounds and occasionally carrying light objects (like office papers or folders).
Importantly, sedentary work does not necessarily mean just sitting in one place all day. Under SSA requirements, a person doing sedentary work typically must be able to lift objects of up to 10 pounds, carry these objects, walk and stand. This is an important distinction to remember as you move through the disability benefits process.
However, even this is not absolute, and Social Security may rely on a vocational expert to identify jobs that require very little standing and lifting. So, even if you can prove that you can’t meet the lifting or walking requirements specified in Social Security’s definition of sedentary work, the government may still be able to deny your claim if they can identify jobs you could still do.
How Does the SSA Determine Disability?
During the disability evaluation process in Steps Four and Five (discussed above), the SSA will prepare what is known as a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment. This is a detailed summary of the specific functional limitations that Social Security has determined impair your ability to work.
If the RFC is consistent with the ability to perform sedentary work, then, unless you are over 50 and meet certain other criteria, you will not receive disability benefits. However, if the RFC includes limitations to activity at “less than sedentary” levels, then you are more likely to be found disabled and eligible for benefits.
There are a number of disabilities and other impairments that may prevent you from performing sedentary work. For example, if you have a chronic back issue that prevents you from sitting for six to eight hours at a time, that may prevent you from working at a sedentary job. Similarly, if you use a mobility device to walk, you may not be able to perform sedentary work.
There are numerous other limitations that could prevent a person from being able to do sedentary work. These include an inability to bend, a need for medication that impairs concentration and focus, or the need to elevate your legs above waist level. Any impairments that would interfere with the ability to get through a full eight-hour workday, would also reduce your capacity below “sedentary.”
Proving that You Cannot Do Sedentary Work
For most individuals under 50, in order to qualify for disability benefits, you must be able to demonstrate that you are completely disabled, and unable to perform even sedentary work on a regular basis (usually Social Security considers only the ability to perform full-time, competitive work when deciding if you are disabling). It can be challenging to prove that you cannot perform this type of light-duty work regularly, but there are certain factors that can be used to show that you cannot do this work.
To prove that you cannot do sedentary work, you may submit evidence of the following:
- You cannot lift 10 pounds occasionally, or lighter amounts regularly;
- You cannot sit for 6 out of 8 hours;
- You cannot stand or walk for more than 2 hours combined;
- You must have your legs elevated in a way that interferes with sitting at a desk or workstation;
- You require a device like a cane or a walker to help you walk;
- You need to lie down during the day for more than an hour; or
- You need to change positions frequently in a way that could not be accommodated with a simple sit/stand workstation.
It is critical to document these factors with evidence from your medical records. This may include test results, letters from your treating physician about your restrictions or limitations, and treatment plans.
What Is a RFC, and How Is It Related to the Ability to Do Sedentary Work?
A residual functional capacity (RFC) is an assessment tool used by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that determines what work-related limitations an applicant may have as a result of their impairment. An RFC is used to determine what is the most that an applicant can do on a regular and continual basis.
An RFC assessment will address four issues:
1. The work-related functions that a person can do on a sustained basis.
2. All functional capabilities, with an analysis of how the submitted evidence supports or refutes the claimant’s allegations, the conclusions of healthcare providers, and other evidence.
3. Issues related to functional capacity related to the ability to do work.
4. Conclusions as to functional capacity.
In other words, the RFC will address your abilities and limitations and make a determination as to what level of work you can do (heavy, medium, light, sedentary, or less than sedentary). If the SSA concludes that you can only perform less than sedentary work, then you should be awarded disability benefits.
An RFC is primarily based on medical evidence. For this reason, it is important that your treating provider create a strong record, including notations on limitations.
What Types of Limitations May Result in a “Less Than Sedentary” Finding?
The SSA has established a set of guidelines to assist in the determination of what types of limitations may make a person unable to perform sedentary work. In most cases, a “less than sedentary” assessment is made when a person has very serious limitations on their ability to work.
There are a number of physical and non-exertional limits that may indicate that a person can only perform less than sedentary work. This may include:
1. An inability to lift up to ten pounds
2. An inability to work in noisy environments.
3. An inability to stand or walk for more than a combined total of two hours a day
4. A reduced ability to use both hands and fingers
5. The use of medically required hand-held devices to help walking
6. A need to keep one leg elevated
7. An inability to balance, even on smooth surfaces
8. An inability to use an arm because of amputation above the elbow
9. Certain visual limitations
10. An inability to sit for six hours out of an eight-hour work-day.
11. A need to alternate sitting and standing throughout the day as needed
12. A need to take frequent sick days
13. A need to rest or lie down as needed through the day
14. A significant inability to stoop or bend
Even if you have one of these limitations, the SSA may still find that you can perform sedentary work. However, as more limitations are added to your RFC assessment, the likelihood of a “less than sedentary” finding increases. This is known as “eroding the occupational base” for sedentary work.
In particular, two limitations are considered to significantly erode the occupational base, even if you just have one of these limitations. This includes (1) the complete inability to stoop; and (2) the need to sit and stand as needed.
If I Can’t Perform My Past Work, Can the SSA Still Find that I Can Do Other Work?
Yes. Even if the SSA finds that you can only do “less than sedentary work,” it may still determine that you are not disabled for the purpose of Social Security disability benefits.
The SSA uses a tool known as the medical-vocational grid to determine whether an applicant is disabled. This grid takes several factors into account, including your residual functional capacity (RFC), how much education you have, the skill level of your past work, and whether any of your skills from this past work can be transferred to another job.
If the SSA determines that you can only do “less than sedentary” work as it relates to your past relevant work, it may still find that you are not disabled if your skills are transferable to a different job in the national economy. This determination is made based on an analysis of your age, education, and work experience.
Overcoming a finding that you can do sedentary work at a different job can be challenging. A seasoned New Jersey disability benefits attorney can help by putting together a strong claim for benefits, and advocating for you throughout the process.
How a Disability Benefits Lawyer Can Help
Applying for disability benefits can be challenging. Working with a disability benefits lawyer can help to make the process simpler, as your lawyer can help you gather the paperwork and documentation that you need to put together the strongest possible application.
The skilled legal professionals of Bross & Frankel have dedicated their practice to helping people in the greater New Jersey and Philadelphia area apply for and obtain disability benefits. With offices in Cherry Hill, Philadelphia, Mt. Holly, Ventor, Turnersville, Princeton, and Media, we work with clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey as they work through the process. To learn more about how we can help you or to schedule a free claim review call our office today at 856-795-8880, or contact us online.
Rich Frankel is the managing partner of Bross & Frankel. He is a member of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania bars. He has focused exclusively on disability and social security benefits since 2005.
Mr. Frankel joined what is now Bross & Frankel after having watched his father struggle with disability, fighting a lengthy illness. Mr. Frankel founded the firm’s veteran’s law practice and substantially grew the social security disability practice, focusing Bross & Frankel’s ability to fight for all of the disability benefits available to his clients.
Mr. Frankel additionally fights for clients in court, obtaining frequent victories in Social Security appeals and against insurance companies in Federal court.