By David F. Traver
Excerpted from Social Security Disability Advocate’s Handbook
The first step in a transferable skills analysis is to identify which of a claimant’s previous work experiences are accurately classified as past-relevant work (PRW). This is more complex than merely identifying the jobs a claimant has performed. Claimants may engage in work activity which, for a variety of reasons, is not properly classified as past-relevant work. If a vocational expert’s testimony regarding a claimant’s skills and their transferability is based on a claimant’s previous work experience which was not past-relevant work, an ALJ commits reversible legal error by basing a decision on that testimony.
The fourth column of the grid tables pertains to the classification of a claimant’s “previous work experience.” As explained in SSR 82-62, the “term ‘work experience’ means skills and abilities acquired through work previously performed by the individual which indicates the type of work the individual may be expected to perform.” SSR 82-62.1 The relevance of such work experience is explained in 20 C.F.R. §§404.1565(a) and 416.965(a) as follows:
We consider that your work experience applies [i.e., is relevant] when it was done within the last 15 years, lasted long enough for you to learn to do it, and was substantial gainful activity.
20 C.F.R. §§404.1565(a) and 416.965(a) (2006) (bracketed comment added).
Social Security Ruling 82-62 interprets the foregoing regulation as requiring a claimant’s previous work experience to satisfy the following three tests before such work experience will be deemed to be past-relevant work.
First, previous work experience must have been substantial gainful activity (SGA) before it properly can be classified as past-relevant work.
The adjudicative criteria for determining whether a person has done “substantial” and “gainful” work activity are explained in sections 404.1571–404.1575 and 416.971–416.975 of the regulations.
Second, previous work experience must have satisfied a “duration” criterion before it properly can be classified as past-relevant work.
Duration refers to the length of time during which the person gained job experience. It should have been sufficient for the worker to have learned the techniques, acquired information, and developed the facility needed for average performance in the job situation. The length of time this would take depends on the nature and complexity of the work.
An individual who has worked only sporadically or for brief periods of time during the 15-year period, may be considered to have no relevant work experience.
Third, previous work experience must have satisfied a “recency” criterion before it properly can be classified as past-relevant work.
Recency refers to the time which has elapsed since the work was performed. A gradual change occurs in most jobs in our national economy so that after 15 years it is no longer realistic to expect that skills (or proficiencies) and abilities acquired in these jobs continue to apply. The 15-year guide is intended to insure that remote work experience which could not reasonably be expected to be of current relevance is not applied.
While the regulations provide that a claimant/beneficiary’s work experience is usually relevant when the work “was done within the last 15 years,” in some cases work performed prior to the 15-year period may be considered as relevant when a continuity of skills, knowledge, and processes can be established between such work and the individual’s more recent occupations.
Except for the purpose of determining whether the disability criteria of sections 404.1562 and 416.962 of the regulations are met, work performed 15 years or more prior to the time of adjudication of the claim (or 15 years or more prior to the date the title II disability insured status requirement was last met, if earlier) is ordinarily not considered relevant.
Properly identifying a claimant’s past-relevant work involves separately weighing each work experience against the tests of SGA, duration, and recency. If a claimant’s previous work experience was SGA, and if it lasted long enough for the claimant to have learned the techniques, acquired information, and developed the facility needed for average performance in the job situation, and if it occurred within the relevant 15-year period, then it is past-relevant work — the operative word being “relevant.”
On the other hand, if a claimant’s previous work experience does not pass all three of the foregoing tests, then it is not past-relevant work. When work experience is not past-relevant work, it is immaterial to a transferable skills analysis.
David F. Traver has represented hundreds of claimants at SSA and over 200 claimants in U.S. District Courts. He has bachelor and master degrees in vocational rehabilitation, and is the author of Social Security Disability Advocate’s Handbook, from which this article is excerpted.