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  • Christopher Le

Recent Changes in Social Security Disability Determinations: A Win for Claimants

At the end of last year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) proposed a significant change in how it evaluates a claimant’s past work when determining disability benefits. The SSA suggested shortening the period considered for past relevant work (PRW) from fifteen years to five years. Last week, this proposal was officially adopted, and the new regulation was published in the Federal Register. Alongside this change, the SSA will no longer take into account any jobs that lasted less than 30 days. These updates are expected to greatly benefit individuals applying for Social Security Disability (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The Role of Past Relevant Work in Disability Determinations

The SSA uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to decide if an individual qualifies for disability benefits. At Step 4, the agency examines the claimant’s PRW to determine if they can still perform any of these jobs given their residual functional capacity (RFC), which is the ability to work despite impairments. PRW is also assessed at Step 5, where it is considered along with the claimant’s RFC, age, and education to see if there are any jobs in the national economy they can do.

Consider David, a 54-year-old who became disabled after 13 years in a physically demanding job. Before that, David worked at a sedentary or 'sit down' office job for a few years. Under the old 15-year rule, the SSA might deny David's claim if they find he could still do his previous sedentary job. However, with the new five-year rule, the SSA won’t consider the office job David left more than 13 years ago. This change means that at Step 5, only David's recent work history will be evaluated for transferable skills.

Updating the Definition of Past Relevant Work

The SSA’s decision to reduce the PRW period reflects an understanding of the modern workforce, where skills quickly become outdated if not used regularly. The new rule defines PRW as work done within the past five years that was substantial and lasted long enough for the claimant to learn how to do it. Jobs lasting less than 30 days will not be considered. This allows applicants to focus on more recent employment, providing more accurate information and reducing the need to recall outdated job details.

Impact on the Disability Application Process

Effective June 8, 2024, this rule applies to all pending and new claims. The SSA expects this change to improve the disability determination process in several ways:

  1. Enhanced Work History Reports: With a shorter period to cover, claimants can provide more detailed and accurate information about their recent jobs, reducing the need for follow-up by SSA staff.

  2. Relevance of Work Skills: The new rule acknowledges that job skills and requirements can quickly become obsolete, making it more reasonable to consider only recent work history.

  3. Reduced Processing Time: Accurate and detailed information from the initial application will enable faster decision-making, improving overall customer service.

  4. Lower Burden on Claimants: Previously, claimants had to document work experience from the past 15 years. This could be challenging and time-consuming. Reducing the requirement to five years simplifies the process and eases the burden on applicants.

These updates represent a significant shift in the SSA’s approach, aiming to streamline the disability determination process and make it more fair and efficient for applicants.

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