Translating Social Security Lingo

It’s no surprise that applicants for Social Security disability benefits typically have more questions than understanding of the process at the beginning. I would too.

The process consists of a language of its own complete with unusual slang and rules. The manner in which a Social Security claim will be judged is dependent on several different classifications. The following is an introduction to some of the lingo.

Social Security classifies work as sedentary, light, medium and heavy. These phrases are the scale by which the court will measure a claim. They are defined below.

Sedentary: Requires the ability to sit up to six hours in an eight hour work day, lift light objects such as files and paperwork frequently during the day, and objects weighing up to 10 pounds occasionally during the day.

Light: Requires the ability to stand up to six hours in an eight hour work day, lift up to 10 pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally.

Medium: Requires the ability to stand up to six hours in an eight hour work day, lift up to 25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally.

Heavy: Same standing as light and medium, lifting heavier than medium.

This particular bit of SSD lingo essentially establishes how disabled someone is based on the work they are capable of completing. It is the scale by which a person’s former working habits and capability for future working habits are weighed.

There are additional classifications for how the Court will view a person’s work history. Each of these classifications will mean different things to different situations. It is up to the attorney and the client to mutually decide the best manner in which to proceed in a case based on these characterizations and the individual’s needs.

The first category is called “Unskilled work.” Unskilled occupations are defined as the least complex types of work. A litmus test for classifying something as unskilled is the period of time in which someone is capable of learning how to perform the duties. Work is generally unskilled when people can learn to do them in 30 days or less. A few examples the Court provides in association with the category are:

  • surveillance system monitor
  • hand packer
  • restaurant dishwasher

Although there are several occupations that can commonly be argued to go up or down in scale, such as typists, clerks, and particular types of technical workers such as circuit board assemblers.

The next category of work is referred to as “Semi-skilled work”. These occupations are more complex than unskilled work, however distinctly simpler than the highly skilled types of jobs. They contain more variables and require more judgment than do unskilled occupations. The litmus test remains the period of time in which it takes to learn the duties and tasks required by the work. Even though some of the tasks may seem as simple as unskilled work, it is a matter of whether or not they could be carried out effectively with only a month of training.

Semi-skilled work is an important discrepancy. It is the shades of gray in an otherwise fairly black and white conversation.  A strong appreciation and understanding of the work becomes very important so that the complexities of the job’s dealing with a levels of data, people, or objects and to the judgments required to do the work. Several occupations defined as semi-skilled work are waiters, professional drivers, nursing assistants, and administrative assistants.

There are many less clear definitions though as well. Carpenters, electricians, and other trades workers can often be considered any one the categories based on circumstances.

The final category is skilled work. Skilled occupations are more complex and varied than unskilled and semiskilled occupations. They require more training time and often a higher educational attainment. Abstract thinking in specialized fields may be required. Common examples of skilled jobs are attorneys, architects, and executives.

The key to the successful outcome of your claim is to apply all of the definitions and rules noted above to the facts of your case.   An attorney has to prove to the Social Security Judge that, based on your age, educational background, past relevant work and your medical limitations, you are disabled.   You need to be represented by an attorney who is very familiar with the Social Security Regulations and Rulings, because this attorney has to show the Judge how your circumstances fit within these Rules.  Sometimes I explain it this way- the Social Security attorney is like a gourmet chef. He/she has to take all of the ingredients and mix them together into a claim that meets the individual “tastes” of the Social Security Judge.  The individual ingredients may not seem compatible but, when combined, make the perfect result.  This is also why it is important to be represented by an attorney who had handled cases in front of the same Judge who is handling your case.  In other words, if you live in Maryland, you need a Maryland attorney who understands what your particular Judge expects proven to find you disabled.