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The 5 Steps to Qualify for Social Security Disability


The 5 Steps to Qualify for Social Security Disability

by Vincent Hein, Senior Attorney

Step 1: Do You Have Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)?

In 2024, you have SGA if you make more than $1,550 gross income per month from wages, net of impairment-related work expenses, you are NOT disabled.

If you have SGA, you do not move on to step 2.

The $1,550 figure increases to $2,590 if you are blind.

Step 2: Are your physical and/or mental conditions severe?

For step 2, your conditions or impairments must be such that they interfere with basic work-related activities and are expected to last 12 months or more or result in death.

If you meet Step 2, then you move to Step 3. If you do not meet the requirements of Step 2, you are not disabled.

Step 3: Do you meet or equal a listing?

If you meet or equal a listing, you are disabled, and the analysis ends. An example of a listing is listing 1.15 “Disorders of the skeletal spine resulting in compromise of a nerve root(s).” The listing sets forth the requirements needed to meet it. If you do not “meet” the listing you still may “equal” it.

At Step 3, SSA will determine your residual functional capacity (RFC), which is what they consider to reflect your ability to lift, carry, sit, and stand.

If you do not meet or equal a listing, you move on to step 4.

Step 4: Can you perform any of your Past Relevant Work (PRW)?

Your PRW is any job you did within 15 years prior to your date of disability. Currently, SSA is working to reduce the 15-year period down to 5, which will be great for social security disability applicants.

For Steps 1 through 4, the burden is on the applicant to show they satisfy the requirements of those steps. If you meet all 4 Steps, you move to Step 5, and the burden shifts to SSA to show you could perform other jobs.

If you are 50 years old or older, there is another set of rules available at Step 4 called the grid rules or medical-vocational guidelines that make awarding social security disability easier for older workers.

Step 5: Are there other jobs available in the national economy you could do?

At this step, the government (SSA) must prove there are other jobs you could perform based on your residual functional capacity (RFC). The problem for applicants here is that SSA uses a very old resource called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) which was supposed to be replaced by the O*Net. Here, SSA can cite such jobs as Tube Operator:

TITLE(s): TUBE OPERATOR (clerical) alternate titles: pneumatic-tube operator; tube clerk; tube dispatcher; tube-station attendant Receives and routes messages through pneumatic-tube system: Opens incoming pneumatic-tube carriers containing items, such as mail correspondence, bills, and receipts. Reads and sorts items according to department. Inserts items into carriers, and carriers into tube system, and routes to specified locations.
GOE: 07.07.02 STRENGTH: S GED: R2 M1 L2 SVP: 2 DLU: 77.

Do you know anyone who has this job? No, it’s a very unrealistic job as we simply don’t send things through pneumatic-tubes anymore, but it does still get cited by SSA. Lots of fights happen at Step 5.

If you can show the government has not met its burden at Step 5 and have made it past Steps 1 through 4, then you are disabled.

If you are interested in a free consultation with the attorneys at Russell Law Offices, S.C., call 608-448-3680. The consultation is free, you only pay if you win.


Vincent Hein

Senior Attorney

Jefferson, Marshall, Stoughton

About Vincent Hein is a Senior Associate Attorney at Russell Law Offices, S.C. Vincent’s law practice focuses on elder law, estate planning, special needs planning, nursing home protection planning, disability, business law, as well as trust and estate administration and trust and estate litigation. Vincent earned his undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy from the […]

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