The Vocational Expert's Role at Your Disability Hearing

The vocational expert (VE) in a Social Security disability hearing offers testimony as to your ability to find work given your condition, age, and the job market.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law

If Social Security didn't initially approve your disability claim and didn't approve it after reconsideration, you'll need to make your case before an administrative law judge (ALJ) at a disability appeal hearing. This is where most disability claims are won.

In addition to you, your legal representative, and the ALJ, you can expect a court reporter and probably a vocational expert (VE) to be present at your disability hearing—although it's common for the VE to attend by telephone. A vocational expert is trained and knowledgeable in all aspects of the labor market, including:

  • the physical requirements of different kinds of work, and
  • the skills needed to perform specific jobs.

The ALJ will decide your Social Security disability claim, but the judge sometimes wants an opinion from a vocational expert about the type of work someone with your limitations can do. The judge will give the VE's opinion a great amount of weight in determining whether or not you can still work.

Here's what you need to know about vocational experts and the role a VE could play at your Social Security disability hearing.

The Vocational Expert's Role in Your Disability Hearing

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will likely hire a vocational expert for your disability hearing. (About 85% of all ALJ hearings included testimony from a VE.) The VE's testimony will serve two purposes:

  • explaining how your past relevant work is categorized in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (a Department of Labor publication commonly called the "DOT"), and
  • answering the ALJ's (and your representative's) questions—including hypothetical RFC questions about the kinds of work someone with your restrictions can and can't do.

The VE will offer an expert opinion about your ability to work and the jobs you can still do in light of your impairments based on:

  • your job history
  • your limitations, and
  • the data in the DOT.

How the Vocational Expert Assesses Your Prior Jobs

One of the vocational expert's primary functions is to look at all the jobs you've had and determine the skill level and exertion level needed to perform each one. The VE will cite the DOT in explaining the physical and mental requirements of your prior work.

The DOT categorizes jobs according to their physical demands (called "exertional level") and their mental demands (called "skill level").

How Does the DOT Describe Exertion Levels?

Exertion levels describe how much physical strength and stamina are required to do different kinds of work. They cover physical skills like walking, standing, lifting, and carrying objects. The DOT and Social Security use the same five exertion levels in assessing job requirements.

Sedentary work doesn't require much physical exertion. The DOT describes sedentary work as:

  • primarily seated jobs
  • lifting no more than 10 pounds occasionally, and
  • walking and standing less than two hours total per day.

Light work doesn't involve a lot of physical exertion but can include a lot of standing and walking or a lot of sitting with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. Light work could require you to be able to do all of the following activities:

  • lifting no more than 20 pounds occasionally
  • lifting or carrying no more than 10 pounds frequently, and
  • significant walking or standing.

Medium work is more physically demanding than sedentary or light work. It can also require frequent stooping and crouching and the ability to grasp and turn objects. The DOT describes medium work as:

  • lifting no more than 50 pounds occasionally
  • lifting or carrying no more than 25 pounds frequently, and
  • significant walking or standing.

Heavy work is generally considered the full range of work. According to the SSA and the DOT, a job is classified as heavy work if it requires the following:

  • lifting up to 100 pounds occasionally
  • lifting or carrying up to 50 pounds frequently, and
  • significant walking or standing.

If you can do light work, it's assumed that you can also do sedentary work. Likewise, if you can do heavy work, the VE and ALJ will determine that you can also do medium, light, and sedentary work.

How Are Skill Levels Determined?

Skills can be described as what you need to know to be able to make the right decisions or perform the correct technique to do a particular job. The skills you have include both those you attained through formal education and those you learned on the job. The DOT divides skill levels into three categories.

Unskilled jobs generally are those that don't add to your job skills. The DOT defines unskilled as work that:

  • requires little or no judgment, and
  • can be learned in a short period of time (usually 30 days or less).

Semi-skilled jobs require some skills and generally take three to six months to learn. The DOT considers a job semi-skilled if it:

  • requires some skill but doesn't include complex job duties, and
  • requires attention to detail.

A semi-skilled job might also require a certain level of coordination and dexterity (the ability to move your hands and/or feet quickly and accurately).

Skilled jobs often require you to have a fair amount of training and/or experience and include fairly complex job duties. The DOT defines a skilled job as one that:

  • requires qualifications to perform the job correctly, and
  • often requires the ability to deal with numbers, abstract ideas, facts, or people.

Reviewing the Exertion and Skill Levels of Your Past Work

To accurately determine the skill and exertion levels required to do your past jobs, the ALJ will ask you to describe your work history in detail. In explaining your past jobs, you should include:

  • whether you managed other workers
  • a description of the physical requirements of your job
  • whether your job required special training, and
  • how long it took for you to learn to do your job.

After reviewing your work history report and listening to your testimony about your work, the VE will classify each of your prior jobs based on its skill level and exertional requirements. The ALJ will use this information to determine whether you can still do your old job. It's important that you listen closely to how the VE describes your past work to make sure it's correct.

For example, the VE could underestimate the physical requirements of your job, classifying it as light work, when your job had you on your feet every day for your entire eight-hour shift (which would be medium work). It's important to get this information corrected because these errors can impact the ALJ's decision about whether or not you can do your old job.

VE's Assessment of Your Ability to Work

After the ALJ and the VE have listened to your testimony about your disability, the judge will then ask the vocational expert some questions to determine if you can do your past work despite your condition. If the VE feels that someone with your limitations can do your old job, and the ALJ agrees, your claim will be denied.

If the vocational expert answers in a way that shows the ALJ you can't do your old job, the ALJ (and your attorney) will question the VE about what other work you might be able to do. To win your claim at the hearing level, the vocational expert must testify that with the limitations imposed by your disability, there are no jobs you can do.

How the ALJ Will Question the Vocational Expert

The ALJ will ask the VE a series of "what-if" questions called "hypotheticals." Here's an example of what an ALJ might ask a VE:

The VE will respond with an expert opinion on the jobs the individual described in the hypothetical can do. The VE will also provide each job's code (the Department of Labor's DOT number for each job title) and the number of those jobs that exist in your geographic area (but not the number of open positions).

The ALJ will then proceed with several more hypotheticals, each with different job restrictions. The ALJ will usually refer to the residual functional capacity (RFC) assessments prepared by Social Security and your doctor to create the what-if questions.

For example, if you suffer from spinal impairments and your range of motion and ability to lift and carry are diminished, the ALJ could ask something like this:

Again, the VE will consider the work-related limitations presented in the hypothetical and give an opinion as to whether there are jobs the individual can do.

Your Attorney Gets to Cross-Examine the VE

Once the ALJ has finished asking questions, your attorney can cross-examine the VE. Your attorney's primary goal in cross-examination is to rule out some or all of the jobs that the VE has said you can do. One way to do this is to give the VE more limitations to consider.

For example, the VE might have said that you could do a sedentary job like secretarial work. To counter this, your attorney will ask the VE follow-up questions based on any documented limitations the ALJ didn't mention. For example, if your medical records reflect that you can't stoop or bend, your attorney could pose the following question:

Because almost all jobs require some amount of bending and stooping, the VE will probably say you can't do secretarial work. Your attorney will then continue to question the VE until all the jobs identified by the VE have been eliminated.

It takes a thorough knowledge of disability law and procedure to ask the right questions. So it greatly increases your chances of winning disability on appeal if you have an experienced disability lawyer representing you.

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