A vocational expert is a professional who provides testimony regarding the vocational aspects of a disability claim. The presence of a vocational expert in a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) hearing can significantly influence the outcome of a claim. By providing insights into a claimant’s work-related abilities and limitations, vocational experts contribute essential information for the administrative law judge to consider. Understanding the significance of vocational experts in SSDI hearings and knowing what to expect is essential for claimants seeking to present a compelling case.
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Understanding the Role of Vocational Experts in SSDI Hearings
The vocational expert’s role is to help the administrative law judge understand how the claimant’s medical condition may affect their capacity to work and whether they can perform their past work or adjust to other types of work. They assess the claimant’s work history, skills, and limitations and offer insight into the individual’s ability to perform specific job tasks. This testimony assists the judge in making an informed decision about the disability claim.
A vocational expert evaluates the exertion and skill levels of different jobs. They assess the exertion and skill levels required for each job based on your work history, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), and its companion, the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (SCO).
Assessing Your Exertional Level
The DOT categorizes exertion levels into five categories. These levels describe the physical capabilities needed for various tasks, such as standing, walking, and lifting objects of different weights:
• Sedentary work – Requires that you be able to lift 10 lbs., stand or walk for 2 hours in an 8-hour day and that you be able to sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour day.
• Light work – Requires that you be able to lift 20 lbs., stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour day and that you be able to sit for 2 hours in an 8-hour day.
• Medium work – Requires that you be able to lift 50 lbs., stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour day and that you be able to sit for 2 hours in an 8-hour day.
• Heavy work – Requires that you be able to lift 100 lbs., stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour day and that you be able to sit for 2 hours in an 8-hour day.
• Very heavy work – Requires that you be able to lift over 100 lbs., stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour day and that you be able to sit for 2 hours in an 8-hour day.
Assessing Your Skill Level
Additionally, the expert evaluates your skill and ability levels, including the techniques and decision-making abilities necessary for different jobs. These skill levels are divided into:
• Unskilled – Needs little or no judgment to do simple duties that can be learned on the job quickly. This is usually 30 days or less. An example of an unskilled job involves putting materials on, in, or taking them off or out of a machine. A person does not gain skills by doing unskilled work.
• Semi-skilled – Needs some skills but does not require complex work duties. An example of a semiskilled job would require alertness and close attention to watching machine processes.
• Skilled – Requires that a person use judgment. For example, a skilled job may require that a person determine the machine and manual operations to be performed to obtain the proper forms.
Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) Ratings
The VE may also refer to a DOT rating of Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP), which indicates the skill level required to perform a job and the amount and nature of training required. The following is an explanation of the various levels of SVP:
- SVP 1 – Short demonstration only
- SVP 2 – Anything beyond a short demonstration up to and including one month.
- SVP 3 – Over one month up to and including three months.
- SVP 4 – Over three months up to and including six months.
- SVP 5 – Over six months up to and including one year.
- SVP 6 – Over one year up to and including two years.
- SVP 7 – Over two years up to and including four years.
- SVP 8 – Over four years up to and including ten years.
- SVP 9 – Over ten years.
Questioning the Vocational Expert
After you testify about your condition, the administrative law judge will question the vocational expert about your work history. The expert will assess whether someone with similar limitations can perform your past jobs.
The judge will present hypothetical scenarios, such as: “Imagine a person the same age as the claimant, with similar work and education background, only able to do unskilled, sedentary work. Could they perform the claimant’s past work? Are there jobs available in the national economy for this individual?”
The vocational expert will identify jobs that the hypothetical individual can perform. The judge may then ask additional questions, adding more restrictions each time.
Can a Claimant’s Representative Cross-Examine the Vocational Expert?
Yes, the claimant’s representative can cross-examine the vocational expert during the hearing. This allows them to clarify or challenge the expert’s testimony if they believe it does not accurately represent the claimant’s abilities and limitations. For example, they may highlight additional limitations not considered by the judge.Get a Free Case Review
Why Do Disability Judges Ask So Many Hypothetical Questions?
Judges use hypothetical situations when questioning vocational witnesses about various work-related limitations. This assesses the claimant’s abilities under physical exertion, cognitive demands, and pain tolerance. Judges carefully structure these questions to understand the individual’s work-related constraints, ensuring their final decision is well-supported and thorough. Judges aim to protect their decisions from potential appeals or reversals through thorough questioning. By exploring different scenarios with the vocational witness, the judge shows the Appeals Council that all limitations were considered in the decision-making process.
What Does It Mean If the Judge Has No Hypothetical Questions?
When the judge at your social security disability hearing doesn’t ask the vocational witness any questions, it usually means that your claim is either very strong or very weak.
Most of the time, it is good news for your case. It shows that your medical evidence is strong enough to prove the severity of your impairments. This could mean that your case meets a specific listing or GRID rule, which means the judge doesn’t need to focus as much on the vocational parts.
However, it could mean there’s not enough evidence of the severity of your impairments. If the judge doesn’t ask vocational questions, your case may not show a severe impairment, which is essential in Social Security’s five-step evaluation process. This could lead to a claim denial, but usually, it’s a good sign.
What If the Vocational Expert Says There Are No Jobs I Can Do?
If the judge determines you can’t do your previous job, they will consult vocational experts to find out about other jobs you can do. If your disability prevents you from doing any jobs, you may be approved for your claim.
Does The ALJ Always Agree with The Vocational Expert?
The ALJ doesn’t always agree with the vocational expert. They may approve claims even if the VE says the claimant can work or deny claims even if the VE says the claimant cannot work. The ALJ must explain why they believe or don’t believe the VE’s testimony. The ALJ must address this conflict if the VE’s testimony contradicts the DOT or SCO.
Having a lawyer who understands the VE’s language and knows about the DOT and SCO is crucial. Skillful questioning of the VE by your representative can reveal these conflicts and turn a loss into a win in your disability case.
Strategies for Claimants to Prepare for Vocational Experts at Social Security Disability Hearings
To prepare for vocational experts at Social Security Disability hearings, claimants should gather detailed information about their work history, including job titles, duties, and physical requirements. They should also be ready to discuss their limitations and how those limitations impact their ability to work. General statements about pain or discomfort may not effectively translate into the vocational expert’s testimony.
Claimants should review their medical records and be prepared to provide specific examples of how their condition affects their daily life and work-related activities. Also, claimants must be honest and forthcoming during the hearing. Maintaining credibility is critical.
Claimants should work closely with their legal representative to prepare for the vocational expert’s testimony by discussing potential questions that may arise during the hearing. We have provided two examples below of how the questioning of a vocation expert might go during an SSDI hearing.
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Sample Questions for a Vocational Expert
Vocational Expert Testimony Example 1: Sedentary Work
Judge: For hypothetical number one, I want you to assume a person of the claimant’s age, education, and work experience is limited to sedentary work. They can lift 10 pounds occasionally, 5 pounds frequently, stand and walk for about two hours, and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. They can push and pull with the upper extremities bilaterally frequently to occasionally. They can operate foot controls with the lower extremities bilaterally frequently to occasionally. They can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. They can occasionally climb ramps or stairs. They can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and balance. They can handle, finger, and feel frequently with the right upper extremity, dominant. They should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat. They should avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights. They are limited to occupations that do not require more than frequent near acuity or frequent far acuity of the right eye.
Could such a person perform any of the claimant’s past work as actually or as generally performed?
Vocational Expert: The survey worker would be eliminated. The customer service representative would still be available. The customer service supervisor would be available at step five but not step four, which would be as generally performed. That completes the list, your Honor.
Judge: Okay. Would there be other work in the national economy at the sedentary level that such a person could perform?
Vocational Expert: Yes, your Honor.
We will start with an ampoule sealer, Dictionary of Occupational Titles, or DOT, number 559.687-014, SVP2. The near acuity bilaterally is frequent. Accommodation is occasional. That would fit the hypothetical. Accommodation is looking at small, fine details. It’s also changing from fine detail to larger detail. Approximately 21,900 jobs nationally.
My second job would be as a Sorter, DOT 521.687-086, SVP2. Near acuity bilaterally is frequent. However, for acuity, depth perception accommodations are not required. That would fit the hypothetical. Approximately 12,400 jobs nationally.
Lastly, a Packaging Stuffer, DOT 731.685-014, SVP2. Near acuity bilaterally is occasionally. Far acuity is never. Depth perception is never. Accommodation is never. Approximately 4,800 jobs nationally.
If you want more jobs, your Honor, we must start looking at semi-skilled jobs.
Judge: Considering hypothetical number one, how is it impacted if the person requires a handheld assistive device for uneven terrain and prolonged ambulation outside the immediate work area, 20 feet? How would that impact the two jobs we’re discussing from past work and the three jobs you offered?
Vocational Expert: The customer service representative would still be available for past work. The survey worker would still be available. The combination job would still be available, and the unskilled sedentary work could still be available.
Judge: Hypothetical number two – how are the responses that identified jobs impacted if the person, during their standard two 15-minute breaks and their lunch break, recline, take a nap, elevate their feet, do whatever is comfortable for them during these two 15-minute breaks in the lunch period, and they return to work timely? Does that have any impact on the past work or the three jobs that you offered?
Vocational Expert: The conference room might not accommodate that. They might have to go out to the car. If it didn’t disrupt the workspace at all, and it was during those breaks, they would still allow all jobs offered.
Judge: Hypothetical number three. Looking at the past work and the three jobs you offered, if I added to the hypotheticals that the person required a sit/stand option at the 30-minute to one-hour interval. They remain on task while making these positional changes; what, if any, impact would it have on the past work jobs that we’ve indicated could still be performed in the three jobs that you offered?
Vocational Expert: The accommodation in the past work would still allow for a sit/stand change of position since it was standing and walking, and 70% of the day was sitting. So, that would still be available as stated in the hypothetical.
Judge: And which job are you referring to when you said that would still be available?
Vocational Expert: The combination of the salesperson automobiles and the customer service representative. So that would still be available. The standalone automobile salesperson as performed would be available but not as generally performed since that job did allow for a lot of sitting. The customer service representative would be available. I will eliminate survey workers since they do more standing than sitting. The unskilled sedentary work would still be available.
Judge: Hypothetical number four. For any hypothetical that produced jobs, how is it impacted if the hypothetical person occasionally requires only simple tasks? Would they be able to perform the past work or the three jobs you offered at SVP2 and the three jobs you offered?
Vocational Expert: All past work would be eliminated. All skills would be eliminated. The unskilled sedentary work would still be available.
Judge: Hypothetical number five. How are the hypotheticals that produce jobs impacted if the person arrives to work late, leaves work early, or is absent from work two or more days per month?
Vocational Expert: Two or more days per month would eliminate all competitive employment. It would still be available if it’s at or below 1.5 times a month. Averaging 1.5 times a month and over would eliminate all competitive employment.
Judge: Hypothetical number six. For any hypothetical that produces jobs, how is it impacted if I add to that hypothetical that the person is going to be off task up to 10% of each work hour, totaling up to 10% of the workday at or away from the workstation? How would that impact the past work we’re discussing in these three jobs you offered?
Vocational Expert: I believe 10% would allow for competitive employment. Anything above 11%, in my opinion, would disallow competitive employment.
Vocational Expert Testimony Example 2: Light Work
Judge: Hypothetical number one: based on the onset date alleged, this individual would be approximately 30 years of age. This individual has a high school education and can read, write, and use numbers. Under this hypothetical, we will limit the individual to light work. However, there are additional limitations and restrictions. This individual can only occasionally stoop and crouch, but no crawling, no kneeling. Climbing stairs would be limited to three to five. No ladders, no heights. This individual would work best carrying out simple tasks in a low-stress environment, defined as occasional decision-making and occasional changes in the work setting. This individual would work best where they only had occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors and no contact with the public. This individual has mild to moderate chronic pain of sufficient severity to be noticeable to him. Still, he’d remain attentive and responsive and could complete regular work assignments satisfactorily. This individual takes medication, but it does not preclude him from functioning at the level indicated. This individual would require a sit-stand option, where the individual could alternate sitting and standing every hour for up to five minutes at a time, and the individual would remain in the work center.
Under that hypothetical, with those restrictions, could the individual do the past relevant work, either as performed or as that work is customarily performed in the national economy?
Vocational Expert: All his past relevant work would be excluded because of the level of work, either in simple tasks or light. All past relevant work has been eliminated.
Judge: Okay. Then, under that hypothetical, can you identify any jobs you believe such an individual can perform?
Vocational Expert: The first would be a similar production worker, 706.687-010, light, SVP2. The national number of jobs would be approximately 16,910. Next would be a photo machine operator, 207.685-014, light, SVP2. The national number of jobs would be approximately 9,686. Next would be office helper, 239.567-010, light, and SVP 2. The national number of jobs would be approximately 11,033.
Judge: Okay. Hypothetical number two: We will track hypothetical number one, but we will change the pain variable from mild to moderate to moderate to severe, such that the pain affects the ability to remain attentive and responsive in the work setting. It does affect the ability to carry out regular work assignments satisfactorily. It affects the ability of the individual to maintain an appropriate and consistent pace, causing the individual to be off task 10% or more of the workday. Under that hypothetical, with those restrictions, could the individual do the past relevant work, either as performed or as that work is customarily performed in the national economy?
Vocational Expert: No, Your Honor.
Judge: Under that hypothetical, can you identify any jobs you believe such an individual can perform?
Vocational Expert: No, sir, not if the person is going to be off task, at any time, on any job, 10% or more of the time.
Judge: All right. Hypothetical number three. Again, we will track hypothetical number one; the pain variable is mild to moderate. However, I’m adding that the individual needs additional breaks besides the one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and the lunch break. The individual may need two to three additional breaks, and they would be, at minimum, 10 to 15 minutes in length. Under that hypothetical, with those restrictions, could the individual do the past relevant work, either as performed or as that work is customarily performed in the national economy?
Vocational Expert: No, sir. He cannot do any of his past relevant work.
Judge: Under that hypothetical, could you identify any jobs you believe such an individual can perform?
Vocational Expert: No, Your Honor. There would not be any other jobs that he could do in the national economy.
Judge: All right. We’re going to do a hypothetical number four. Again, we will track hypothetical number one as a base. However, we will add that the individual has a poor ability to concentrate, persist, and maintain pace and has difficulty focusing on work activities and staying on task at a sustained rate. Under that hypothetical, could the individual do the past relevant work, either as performed or as that work is customarily performed in the national economy?
Vocational Expert: No, Your Honor, he could not.
Judge: And under that hypothetical, would there be any jobs?
Vocational Expert: No, sir.
Judge: Hypothetical number five. Suppose a person missed more than two days per month regularly, and regularly is defined as two or more months in succession. Would that individual be able to sustain regular employment?
Vocational Expert: No, sir. He would not.
Do You Need Representation for Your Social Security Disability Hearing?
If you are scheduled for an SSDI hearing, it is highly advisable to seek the support of a qualified attorney specializing in Social Security Disability cases. Statistically, claimants represented by an attorney have a higher chance of success. Their expertise in navigating the legal system and familiarity with vocational expert testimony can be invaluable in presenting a compelling case for your disability benefits. Call (888) 321-8131 to see how the Ortiz Law Firm can help you win your Social Security Disability hearing.Get a Free Case Review