We know a lot of people aren’t happy about the Social Security disability process. Frankly, we don’t enjoy it much, either. There are lots of excessive delays and duplicative paperwork built into the process.

At the same time, we can’t hold the Social Security Administration at fault for the defects in the system. The good people at the SSA are doing their best to award benefits to people with legitimate disabilities, while following the rules that Congress has set forth to weed out fraudulent claims. And—let’s be fair here—Congress and the Social Security Administration have opened up ways to bypass the usual rules for people in truly desperate straits: applicants with terminal illnesses, disabled military veterans, dire need cases, and people with extreme disabling conditions.

Today, we’re going to look at one little-known provision in Social Security disability law: a rule that opens up benefits for many people who might not otherwise qualify.

What Is the Worn-Out Worker Rule?

As you may already know, many of the checkpoints for obtaining Social Security disability are designed to see if the applicant can still work. The tests give priority to jobs similar to those the applicant may have had in the past. If none of those are suitable, the Social Security caseworker will look for any job that matches the applicant’s skills and education.

But what if the applicant has no specific job skills or education to fall back on?

The “worn-out worker” rules for Social Security disability are found in section 404.1562 of the Code of Federal Regulations. They apply only to a narrow class of applicants for disability benefits. To qualify under these rules, the applicant…

  • Must have only done only arduous unskilled physical labor for at least 35 years. The Social Security Administration has defined “arduous work” to mean “primarily physical work requiring a high level of strength or endurance,” but goes on to note, “No specific physical actions or exertional level denotes arduous work.” It’s also worth noting that the period of 35 years in unskilled labor need not be continuous.
  • Must have only a marginal education. As a rule of thumb, anyone who has left formal schooling by sixth grade is usually considered to meet this requirement.
  • Must no longer be able to work because of a severe impairment that is expected to last at least a year or to end in death.

If the worker meets those criteria, he may not need to meet a diagnosis from Social Security’s Listing of Impairments. He will not have to undergo an assessment for residual functional capacity (RFC). His disability examiner can classify him as disabled without checking to see if he can perform lighter unskilled work.

Do You Qualify as a Worn-Out Worker?

Today, not many people abandon their formal education before high school and work exclusively in unskilled heavy labor for many decades. We have found that some disability assistance businesses don’t know about the worn-out worker rule and don’t advise their clients how to make use of this option in disability law. That’s a shame.

At Keefe Disability Law, we’re on top of things. Our New England disability attorneys work hard to give our clients the best advice we can, based on decades of accumulated experience and constant monitoring of changes in disability law. To take advantage of our knowledge, request our free report, 7 Costly Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Social Security Disability Claim, or contact our team at 508-283-5500 (or toll-free at 888-904-6847) for a free case review.

Are You Looking for a Social Security Disability Attorney in Boston, MA?

If you are looking to apply for social security disability, you need to speak with an experienced social security disability lawyer as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Natick Office directly at 508.283.5500 to schedule your free consultation.


John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer
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D. Robert 05/07/2017 08:14 PM
I'm a high school dropout with a GED. I spent thirty years in arduous labor between working as a janitor and working in a warehouse. I'm fifty one years old with two fully vested pensions that I may collect at age fifty five. I don't believe that I will be in any physical condition to continue working at this pace after age fifty five. My chronic back pain is currently under management by a chiropractor. I have been a steady client to the same chiropractor for eighteen years. However, there are numerous chances that the pains could become much more severe over a period of three years from now. Though I am not seeking benefits at this time, what could my options be in any event that my back pain becomes unmanageable?
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