Applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can be overwhelming for claimants with severe health problems. The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process to decide cases. While each step is important, Step 5 often becomes the critical step for many cases. Here, we will give a brief overview of Steps 1-5.
Steps 1-5: A Brief Overview
- Step 1: Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)
o The SSA first determines if you are currently working and earning above a specific income level, called Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). If so, you may be ineligible for benefits. For 2023, if you work and earn more than $1470 gross (before taxes) per month from a job, SSA will determine you are above the earning limit and deny your case. If you are not working or working under SGA, SSA will proceed to Step 2.
- Step 2: Severity of Medical Condition(s) o The SSA then decides whether your medical condition is severe enough to limit your ability to perform basic tasks for at least 12 months. If your condition has not lasted or is not expected to last longer than 12 months, SSA will deny your case. Conversely, if your condition meets this 12-month durational requirement, SSA will proceed to Step 3.
- Step 3: Meeting or Equaling a Listing
o The SSA consults its “Blue Book” of medical conditions. If your condition meets or equals one of these listings, you may be automatically approved for benefits. Unfortunately, due to the strict criteria of the listings, most cases proceed to Step 4.
- Step 4: Past Relevant Work
o Here, the SSA determines if your medical condition prevents you from doing work you’ve done in the past 15 years. If not, your case may be denied. If SSA determines your condition does indeed prevent you from doing your past work, they will proceed to Step 5.
- Step 5: Other Work in the Economy
o Step 5 determines whether you can adjust to any other type of work in the national economy considering your physical and mental limitations, age, education, and past work experience. This is where the concept of “eroding the job base” comes into play. If SSA finds other work they believe you would be able to perform considering your medical problems, your case will be denied. Conversely, if SSA determines there are no jobs you would be able to perform in the national economy, your case will be granted. Step 5 usually involves testimony from a Vocational Expert
Eroding the Job Base: Physical and Mental Limitations
• Physical Limitations
o Limited Mobility: Conditions that affect your ability to move, such as back issues or arthritis, can restrict your ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, etc
o Sensory Impairments: Vision or hearing limitations can also be key factors in eroding jobs.
• Mental Limitations
o Cognitive Impairments: Limitations like severe memory loss or inability to concentrate can reduce the range of jobs you can perform.
o Disorders like severe depression or anxiety can make it difficult to sustain any work that requires regular social interaction or high-stress decision-making.
Winning at Step 5 relies heavily on showing strong medical evidence and expert testimony to show how the limitations caused by your medical problems restrict work abilities.
• Medical Records
o Keep all your medical records well-organized and up to date. The SSA looks for consistency in these documents to verify your limitations.
• Vocational Expert Testimony
o These experts can provide invaluable insights into how your limitations impact your employability, thereby eroding the job base.
While Steps 1-4 are important in removing ineligible cases, Step 5 often determines the outcome of cases for those on the border of eligibility. Understanding how physical and mental conditions can erode the job base is critical for a successful SSDI and/or SSI case at this stage.
if you’re lost in the difficult disability process, reach out to an experienced Social Security Disability advocate at Brothers and Henderson PS. Navigating the process with expert legal advice can mean the difference between losing or winning the Social Security Disability Benefits you rightfully deserve.