Past Relevant Work (PRW) can prevent you from being found disabled by the Social Security Administration, but claimants often do not understand what this means and why it can be so important in deciding a disability claim. In the five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether or not a claimant is disabled, this issue does not arise until Step 4 but will end the case for someone found capable of doing PRW – this person cannot be disabled.
The Basic Definition of Past Relevant Work
At its most basic level, Past Relevant Work examines your current capacity to perform past work, which may show the ability to do Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) now. To define Past Relevant Work, you focus on a specific portion of your past work – this is the “relevant” part. The Social Security Administration uses a 15-year window here. This window “closes” at the earlier of two dates: the “date last insured,” which is the last day that you met the requirements to be eligible for Social Security benefits, and the date that the disability determination is made. Then, you look at all of your work from whichever date applies to the date ending 15 years prior to this date.
However, not all of your past work within this timeframe is necessarily relevant (SSR 82-62).The general rule of thumb is that you had to have earnings that at least equaled the amount set as Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) when you did the work. Relevant work also means that you performed the work long enough to know how to do the job. The level of skill required by a job provides the guidance here. For example, unskilled positions usually are considered to take no more than 30 days to learn. As a job becomes more complex to learn, you would need to earnings at SGA level for a longer period of time. Being able to explain what you had to do at a particular job is important because this demonstrates the necessary skill level, which, in turn, affects how long you had to do a job at SGA level for it to be considered PRW.
Past Relevant Work becomes very important if you are not found to meet or equal one of the SSA’s listed impairments because, while PRW cannot lead to a finding that you are disabled, it can eliminate the possibility of being found disabled. For example, if the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at a hearing decides that you did something that would be Past Relevant Work and also decides that your functional capacities at the time of the hearing would allow you to do this job now, then you are not disabled. Everything that would qualify as PRW during the prior 15 years must be beyond your functional capacities for your disability claim to reach the fifth and final step of the sequential evaluation (i.e., whether or not a claimant can do any job found in significant numbers in the national economy).
The SSA chose fifteen years as the lookback period for a specific reason. The theory is that jobs and their requirements gradually change over time with societal and technological changes occurring. What employers will need to do a particular position has to adjust to these changing demands. The thinking is that, after 15 years, a comparison between what you had to do then versus what you would have to do in the same work now is unrealistic.
Past Relevant Work: Viewed from Two Perspectives by Social Security
Past Relevant Work is viewed from two potentially different perspectives. First, an ALJ at a hearing wants to know how you performed this work (SSA – POMS: DI 25005.020 – PRW as the Claimant Performed It – 04/27/2017). This could be very different from the standard definition since one employer’s needs may differ from another’s. Being able to explain how you did a job on a function-by-function basis is crucial here. Another reason is that your work as you did it may not be among the standard definitions found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (the “DOT”) because many jobs are composed of various elements of different jobs. These “composite” positions are not found in the DOT.
As long as you can perform all of the essential parts of the job as you did it, you usually are not considered disabled. There is enough flexibility in the concept of Past Relevant Work that part-time work could be considered PRW under certain circumstances as could work performed during a 4-day week instead of the 5-day week that is part of the standard SGA definition. While you may be able to do PRW as you actually performed it, this flexibility regarding defining your Past Relevant Work might not preclude a finding of disability at Step 5. For example, an inability to work a 40-hour week could significantly erode your occupational base, leading to a favorable disability determination here.
The second way that Past Relevant Work is evaluated does focus on how the work generally is performed in the national economy. The DOT remains the starting point for this definition. A decision on disability should consider and discuss PRW from both perspectives.
In the context of the SSA’s sequential evaluation of disability claims, Past Relevant Work could be irrelevant if a final determination on a claim is made in any of the 3 prior steps (Code of Federal Regulations § 404.1560). However, since there is no guarantee that this will happen, a case must be approached with the idea that Step 4 will be reached. This means that a claimant’s PRW needs to be developed. The main source of documentation for vocational evidence of Past Relevant Work should be the claimant, who can describe past employment in terms of the tasks, responsibilities, and other factors that comprised the work. If the claimant cannot or, for some reason, will not provide this information and if no other source for this vocational information is available, the claim generally will be denied.
How the Ability to Do Past Relevant Work is Determined
After the information about PRW is determined, it is used to decide if you are able to do your Past Relevant Work. Your Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) – what you can do despite any and all limitations due to your impairments – is determined prior to Step 4. RFC is described on a function-by-function basis. This is compared to the physical and mental demands of your PRW at this point. The issue is whether the RFC will permit the claimant to do the Past Relevant Work as the claimant actually performed it or as it generally is done in the national economy. The facts of the case are used to decide how these comparisons are made.
In the end, if PRW cannot be done under either test, then the disability determination moves to Step 5. This is the final step, which looks at the ability to do any work at SGA level that is found in the national economy in significant numbers.
It is important to remember that a decision regarding Past Relevant Work does not occur in a vacuum. There must be a current comparison point, which is why mental and physical Residual Functional Capacity must be established prior to Step 4. For example, at a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge will determine the claimant’s functional limitations, looking at capacities to sit, stand, walk, lift, and carry (among other physical abilities). They are compared to the physical demands of PRW. If there is evidence of mental or emotional impairments that affect a person’s RFC, then the ALJ needs to know job responsibilities and duties from the PRW that would be likely to produce tension and anxiety, for example. Again, this is a function-by-function comparison of current Residual Functional Capacity with the claimant’s Past Relevant Work and what it required the person to do.
Quick Tips to Remember about the Development of Past Relevant Work
If you apply for disability, you always must bear in mind that you are the primary source of your work experience (Code of Federal Regulations § 404.1565). You need to give a detailed description of jobs that you performed. Then, you have to give credible testimony of the work requirements that you no longer can meet as well as the reasons why you cannot perform them anymore. Your testimony is not the only consideration, though. Disability decisions rely on medical evidence so the evaluation of medical evidence must support your reasons. Other sources that may influence any decision about your current ability to do PRW may come from a Vocational Expert at your hearing and even the somewhat outdated Dictionary of Occupational Titles, providing an overview of how your Past Relevant Work generally is performed in the national economy.
Taken together, all of these things lead to the decision at Step 4 of the sequential evaluation. The decision maker should state the relative weight given to medical and non-medical factors in the determination regarding your ability to do your Past Relevant Work. In doing this, your Residual Functional Capacity must be explained as well as the factual findings of the physical and mental demands of the past work being considered. In the final analysis, you need to remember that you will give much of the information needed to make this decision so you cannot afford to treat your Past Relevant Work as an afterthought. While no finding regarding this issue can ensure a favorable disability determination, a decision not to fully develop your Past Relevant Work can easily doom your disability claim.