The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Concept of “Transferable Skills” in Determining Whether a Disability Claimant Can Perform Full-Time Work Available in the National Economy

By William Carr, Supervising Attorney

When Will SSA Look Into Whether or Not I Have Transferable Skills?

In order to be declared medically disabled by SSA, you must show one of the following:

(1) That your medical conditions or impairments meet or equal the requirements of one of the specific SSA impairment listings.  To be determined disabled via a listing, your medical records must contain very specific findings that typically result in very specific symptoms.

(2) That your medical impairments prevent you from being able to return to your past work AND prevent you from being able to perform any other work available in the national economy.

The great majority of favorable disability determinations fall under the second situation rather than meeting or equaling a specific listing.  So, if you do not meet or equal a listing, SSA must determine whether the medical evidence shows that your impairments would prevent you from performing your past work as well as any other work in the economy.  The concept of transferable skills comes into play in the last part – can you perform any other work available in the national economy?

How is Presence of Transferable Skills Relevant to Whether or Not I Can Perform Other Work?

Even if SSA agrees with you that you are unable to perform any of your past relevant work, they still must determine if there is any other work you can do based on the following factors: (a) the limitations caused by your medical impairments, (b) your age, (c) your education and (d) your past work experience.  To help them make consistent determinations in this regard, SSA has created specific Medical-Vocational Guidelines.  These guidelines are commonly referred to as the “Grid Rules.”  In order to “Grid Out” and get a favorable disability determination under these rules, a transferable skills analysis must be undertaken based on your past work experience.

What Does SSA Look At in Determining Whether or Not I Have Transferable Skills for Other Work?

Under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1568, SSA is going to classify your past work as skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled work.  A person does not gain transferable skills from unskilled work.  On the other hand, both skilled and semi-skilled work can create transferable skills to other skilled and semi-skilled jobs.  However, you cannot have transferable skills from your past work to other work involving a greater level of skill than your past work (SSR 82-41).  In other words, you cannot have transferable skills from semi-skilled past work to skilled jobs.

The presence of transferable skills depends largely on the similarity of the work activities from your past work with different jobs available in the national economy.  The factors to determine similarity of work activities include: (i) whether the same or lesser degree of skill is required; (ii) whether the same or similar tools and machines are used in the different jobs; and (iii) whether the same or similar materials, products, processes or services are involved (20 C.F.R. § 404.1568(d)(2)).

Will My Mental or Psychological Impairment Have Any Impact on Whether or Not SSA Determines If I Have Transferable Skills for Other Work in the National Economy?

If SSA determines you have a severe mental impairment, this can have an indirect impact on the presence of transferable skills for your claim.  Skilled and semi-skilled work requires that a person have the ability to understand, remember, and carry out more complex work duties than are required for unskilled work.  So, if your mental impairment limits your functioning in terms of understanding, remembering, and carrying out more complex work duties, then SSA may determine that you are limited to only unskilled types of work.

If you are limited in this manner, then even if you have highly skilled past work, you cannot have transferable skills to skilled or semi-skilled work because you are limited to only unskilled work due to your mental impairment.  As mentioned above, you can only have transferable skills from skilled or semi-skilled work to other types of skilled or semi-skilled work.  In other words, skills cannot be transferred from unskilled to semi-skilled/skilled work, nor can skills be transferred from semi-skilled/skilled work to unskilled work.  Thus, transferable skills will not play into the analysis in these situations since SSA has already determined that you are limited to only unskilled occupations.

Example

A 53 year old disability claimant has skilled past work and a high school education.  This past work required her to stand for most of the work day and lift/carry up to 20 lbs. on an occasional basis.  SSA determines she is not physically capable of standing this much or carrying this much weight due to her impairments.  However, SSA also determines that she has transferable skills from this work to desk-job type or sedentary work, such as working as a telemarketer, and that she is physically capable of performing this type of work.  Because of this, the claimant is denied benefits because the Grid Rules dictate an unfavorable finding in this situation due to the transferable skills to sedentary jobs that the claimant is physically capable of performing.

However, if SSA had determined there were no transferable skills to sedentary work, the Grid Rules would instead dictate a favorable finding even though SSA has determined she would be physically capable of sedentary work.  Thus, because there are no transferable skills, a favorable finding would result.

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