Understanding the role of vocational experts is important in the process of applying for Social Security Disability benefits. These experts play a significant role in determining your eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. This article will explore the importance of vocational experts and their impact on the outcome of disability claims.

Understanding Vocational Experts

Vocational experts are highly knowledgeable professionals who possess expertise in the labor market and job requirements. Their role is to provide expert testimony regarding a disability claimant’s ability to work, given their medical condition, age, and the job market. Although the Social Security Administration (SSA) hires the vocational expert, they must remain impartial and provide unbiased opinions based on their expertise.

The Significance of Vocational Expert Testimony

During the appeals process, when a claimant’s initial application for SSDI benefits gets denied, a disability appeals hearing gets scheduled. This is where the vocational expert’s testimony becomes crucial. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) assigned to administer a hearing relies on the vocational expert’s opinion to make informed decisions regarding a claimant’s ability to work. Their testimony helps the ALJ determine whether the claimant can perform their past work or if there are other jobs available that they can perform, given their limitations.

Evaluating Work History and Job Requirements

One of the primary responsibilities of a vocational expert is to assess a claimant’s work history and determine the skill level and exertion level required for each job. The vocational expert relies on resources such as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to understand the physical and mental demands of different occupations. The DOT categorizes jobs based on their exertion level and skill level.

Exertion Levels

Exertion levels describe the physical strength and stamina required for different types of work. The DOT and Social Security use five exertion levels:

  1. Sedentary work: Jobs that primarily involve sitting and require minimal physical exertion, such as lifting no more than 10 pounds occasionally and walking or standing for less than two hours per day.
  2. Light work: Jobs that involve some walking, standing, or sitting but still have physical demands, such as lifting up to 20 pounds occasionally and frequent walking or standing.
  3. Medium work: Jobs that require more physical exertion, including lifting up to 50 pounds occasionally, significant walking or standing, and bending or stooping.
  4. Heavy work: Physically demanding jobs that involve lifting up to 100 pounds occasionally, frequent lifting and carrying of objects weighing up to 50 pounds, and significant walking or standing.
  5. Very heavy work: Jobs that require exertion beyond the scope of heavy work, involving lifting objects weighing over 100 pounds occasionally and significant walking or standing.

Skill Levels

Skill levels refer to the knowledge and abilities required to perform a particular job. The DOT classifies skill levels into three categories:

Unskilled jobs: Jobs that require minimal judgment and can be learned in a short period, typically within 30 days.

Semi-skilled jobs: Jobs that require some skills and take longer than six months to learn, but don’t involve complex duties.

Skilled jobs: Jobs that involve complex duties, require significant training or experience and often involve dealing with numbers, facts, abstract ideas, or people.

The Role of Vocational Experts in Disability Hearings

During a disability hearing, the ALJ will call upon a vocational expert to provide expert testimony. The vocational expert’s role is to answer questions from the ALJ and the claimant’s disability attorney regarding the claimant’s ability to perform work-related activities. The vocational expert will consider the claimant’s job history, limitations, and the data from the DOT to provide an informed opinion on the claimant’s ability to work.

Hypothetical Questions

The ALJ will typically ask hypothetical questions to the vocational expert to assess the claimant’s ability to perform specific jobs. These hypothetical questions often involve considering a hypothetical individual with the same age, education, and work history as the claimant, but with the claimant’s limitations. The vocational expert will then provide their expert opinion on whether the hypothetical individual can perform the claimant’s past work or any other job.

Cross-Examination by the Claimant’s Attorney

After the ALJ questions the vocational expert, the claimant’s disability attorney can cross-examine the expert. This allows the attorney to challenge the vocational expert’s opinions and provide additional evidence or limitations that were not initially considered. The attorney’s goal is to undermine the vocational expert’s testimony and show that the claimant cannot perform their past work or any other job.

The Importance of Working With an Experienced Disability Lawyer

Navigating the disability appeals hearing can be daunting, and having an experienced disability lawyer by your side can increase your chances of success. A skilled attorney understands the nuances of vocational expert testimony and knows how to effectively cross-examine the expert to strengthen your case. They will gather relevant evidence, challenge the vocational expert’s opinions, and ensure all necessary limitations are considered during the hearing.

Brock and Stout’s disability lawyers have helped clients through the disability appeals process for over 25 years. If you have been denied disability, reach out to us soon for a free evaluation of your denied claim to see if we can help you get the assistance you need.