What is a Vocational Expert and how can they affect my Disability Claim?
A vocational expert, or VE, is an expert witness called by the Social Security Administration to testify at disability appeal hearings and provide impartial expert evidence before an administrative law judge, or ALJ.
Administrative Law Judges use vocational experts in cases where they must determine whether a claimant is able to perform his or her previous job or other work.
A VE is knowledgeable about the current labor market, job availability, and skills needed to perform specific jobs. Before a scheduled hearing, a vocational expert will review any exhibits provided and then give testimony in person at the hearing. Sometimes a VE will testify by telephone or video teleconference or be asked to provide opinions by responding to written questions called interrogatories. The testimony of a vocational expert can be very important because their opinion about the claimant’s ability to work may affect the outcome of the hearing and determine whether a claim is denied.
The Social Security Administration expects a vocational expert to have knowledge of:
- Skill levels and physical and mental demands of occupations
- Characteristics of various work settings
- The existence and incidence of jobs within occupations
- Transferrable skills analysis and SSA regulatory requirements for transferability of work skills
- Industrial and occupational trends and local labor market conditions
- How the SSA determines whether a claimant is disabled
During an appeal hearing, the judge and the claimant’s attorney will ask the claimant questions about their disability and their work history.
The ALJ will then ask the vocational expert to give his or her opinion about jobs the claimant is able to perform given their limitations. The vocational expert uses the claimant’s testimony about past work experiences to classify physical requirements and skill levels of each prior job the claimant has held and to identify skills which might be transferred to other jobs. If the claimant is not able to work in a previous occupation, the VE considers the skills the claimant has which may enable them to perform different work. It is important for the claimant to be specific when testifying about previous occupations so that the vocational expert does not attribute skills to the claimant they do not have.
A VE can only consider past relevant work (PRW) that a claimant performed in assessing a claimant’s job skills.
The following criteria is used to determine if work is PRW:
- whether claimant performed the job long enough to learn it
- whether claimant performed the job in the last 15 years, and
- whether claimant performed the job at the substantial gainful activity level for the year worked ($1,170 in 2017).
If you have been denied disability don’t give up! Contact a local Disability lawyer at 512-454-4000 for a free consultation and get the benefits you deserve.
Seasonal work and part-time work can be counted as past relevant work.
Volunteer jobs, unsuccessful work attempts, or jobs performed during a closed period of disability cannot be counted as past relevant work. A closed period of disability is the time between the onset of a disability and the time when a claimant returns to work at the substantial gainful activity level.
The vocational expert rarely questions the claimant directly.
Instead, a VE responds to questions posed by the administrative law judge and the claimant’s attorney at the hearing. These questions are typically framed hypothetically and based on age, work experience, functional limitations and education. For example, an administrative law judge might ask, “What jobs could a person the same age as the claimant be expected to perform if they could not bend or kneel, lift more than 20 pounds, or stand longer than 30 minutes at a time.” If the vocational expert testifies that you can no longer perform your past work, the administrative law judge and your attorney will then ask the VE additional questions to see if you can do other jobs. If the vocational expert believes there is other suitable work you can do, they must give the job titles, the number of positions in your area and the job code assigned in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.
Your attorney will be allowed to ask the vocational expert questions after the administrative law judge has finished and can challenge the VE’s opinion on what jobs you can do.
This cross-examination is the most important part of the hearing. It takes knowledge and experience to question a vocational expert properly and achieve a successful result. The guidance and advice of a highly skilled attorney can make the difference between denial and approval of an appeal.