After you apply for disability benefits, your case will be evaluated under the SSA Five Step Evaluation. The five steps are found below with a discussion of each step. The SSA list of the five steps is found here.
1. Are you working? Seems simple enough, right? Not really. Even the word “work” has a special definition. SSA defines work as “substantial gainful activity” (SGA). SGA is basically making more than $1,310 a month (2021). If you are making more than that you usually can not be found disabled. If you are not working or coming close to making $1,310 a month you proceed to Step 2.
2. Is your condition severe? Again, Webster’s dictionary does not apply to SSA. Severe is defined as a condition that “significantly limits an individual’s physical or mental abilities to do basic work activities.” Severe impairments are usually what you allege that makes you disabled when you file for benefits. Step 3, here we come.
3. Is your condition found in the list of disabling conditions? So if you have something on this list you are disabled, right? Its not that simple by a long shot. Let me give you an example. If you look here you will find the listing for back problems. In the real world, this would be someone with extreme back pain. The level of pain that would stop you from working comes long before you meet this listing. If you meet a listing you are in very bad shape. Most people do not meet listings. On to Step 4.
4. Can you do the work you previously did? At hearing the SSA uses a Vocational Expert (VE) to discuss the work that you have done. Usually any job that you worked for more than six months in the last 15 years is up for discussion. VEs use the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to define your past jobs. The last version that was published of the DOT was around twenty+ years ago. This is especially relevant because many jobs that are listed in the DOT are no longer available, i.e. textile jobs in NC.
5. Can you do any other type of work? Again, the SSA relies on the VE testimony for other jobs you can possibly do based on what the ALJ determines you are now capable of doing (this is your residual functional capacity, more discussion on RFC here). Based on the hypothetical RFC given to the VE, they will come up with jobs that you can do that probably no longer exist in real life.
The SSA Five Step Evaluation is designed to put roadblocks in your way. If you are unable to work because of your health, you should apply for benefits as soon as possible. Waiting may cause you to lose benefits. The SSA Five Step Evaluation is complicated but don’t let that stop you from applying if you can not work!
Also read Types of SSA Disability Benefits
*This post was last updated October, 2019.*