You may have heard of the “grid rules,” formally known as the Medical Vocational Guidelines, which is a regulation that makes it easier for people over 50 (and people who can’t communicate in English over 45) to qualify for benefits. Because of these rules, it can be a lot harder for younger people to qualify for benefits. Below age 50, you would be disqualified from disability if there is any unskilled job that you could sustain on a full-time basis, regardless of the exertion level of the job. Generally, that’s going to mean “sedentary” jobs. What is a sedentary job? “Sedentary” is a category of exertion that means a job doesn’t require any prolonged standing or heavy lifting. Sedentary jobs are generally considered to require:

  • Sitting six hours a total of out of an eight-hour day
  • Standing and/or walking a total of two hours in an eight hour day
  • Lifting up to 10 pounds “occasionally” (up to 1/3 of the time) and “less than ten pounds” (generally up to five pounds) “frequently,” as in up to 2/3 of the day, and being able to carry that weight during the limited time standing and walking. 
  • Using your hands for fine and gross manipulation, such as putting small parts together, typing, using a telephone or computer mouse, etc, “frequently” or about 2/3 of the day 
  • Working in two-hour intervals, with a 30 minute lunch halfway through the day and a 15 minute break in the middle of each half
  • Remaining on-task at least 85% of the time 
  • Following simple instructions and directions
  • Interacting appropriately with coworkers and supervisors with at least a few interactions with supervisors in a routine day
  • Responding appropriately to criticism and correction
  • Handling minor routine changes in the workplace
  • Handling mild work stress
  • Being able to sometimes (less than “occasionally” but not never) bend over or crouch to pick up something dropped on the floor
  • Being on-time to work almost every day, with no more than one or two instances of arriving more than a few minutes late or leaving more than a few minutes early per month
  • Making it to work almost every day, being absent from work no more than one or two days per month

As you can see there are a lot of little requirements to unskilled sedentary work, and there are quite a few ways a medical condition could keep a person from being able to meet all the requirements. Generally speaking, failing to meet just about any of these requirements is going to knock someone out of the work force unless it’s made up for in some other way. For example, a person who can’t sit six hours could still work if they are able to stand and walk enough for sitting, standing, and walking to add up to eight hours. A person who can’t sit for long intervals can still work if they are able to stay productive while both sitting and standing, if they get a job that allows them to work from either posture (and there are many such jobs). However, needing the option to alternate between sitting and standing freely may become work-preclusive (that is, preventing the person from being able to work) if the posture change renders the person distracted or unable to work more than about 10% of the day. 

Some of the numbers in this list of requirements are going to vary slightly depending on who you talk to. In most hearings, the government has a consultant known as a “vocational expert” testify about how certain limitations would affect the job market. These people are generally trained and experienced as vocational counselors, and usually have experience working with a labor department or other agency helping people with disabilities find jobs that accommodate their limitations. VEs are expected to know from experience and training what sorts of limitations are and are not tolerated in the job market. Of course not all VEs are alike; some frankly are not very realistic, but most will say about the same things. Most, for example, will agree that missing work more than twice a month will make a person unable to work, but some will say one absence from work per month is too much while others will say that two could be tolerated. Most will say that being off-task 15% of the time is disabling, but some will say that the threshold is instead “anything over 10%.” Most will say that exactly 10% can be tolerated. 

In a hearing, the judge will present a few scenarios to the VE and ask what if any jobs a person like that could do. These scenarios are called “hypotheticals,” as in “consider a hypothetical person” similar to the claimant, with a certain “residual functional capacity,” which is a list of capabilities and limitations. The residual functional capacity, or RFC, is something the judge has to decide on in the written decision, and the government then needs to specify jobs that a person with that RFC could do if the government wants to deny the claim. 

So what are the limitations that commonly result in a person receiving benefits? Perhaps the easiest way to prove someone can’t work is simply if the hours they can sit, stand, and walk don’t add up to a full eight-hour work day. Every vocational expert I’ve ever asked has said that if these numbers don’t add up to 8, there are no jobs. So that’s an easy one. But most of the time, the judge doesn’t get there. Other common disabling limitations would be:

  • off-task 15% of the time or more
  • Absent two or more times a month
  • Unable to use their hands for manipulation more than occasionally 
  • Unable to deal with even a low level of work stress
  • Unable to handle any routine social contact such as with supervisors 
  • Unable to follow even simple instructions without making too many mistakes

Note that not all of these have to stem from physical conditions; some of these are reasons why mental illness could be disabling. 

As you can see, there are actually a lot of ways to become disabled, but it’s not always going to be obvious even to the disabled person how to explain why they can’t work. That’s why it’s important to get help from a qualified attorney or representative who knows the questions to ask both before the hearing in preparing you, and during the hearing to get the key facts on the record. It’s also a good idea to have a representative who understands the role of a vocational expert and knows the right questions to ask. If you need help with your Social Security benefits, at any stage of the process from the initial application all the way up to federal court appeals, get in touch with me and I’ll be happy to review your case free of charge.