Applying for Social Security Disability with Limited Work History

SSDI Work History ReviewApplying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) can be complex. Part of the process includes submitting a complete work history to the Social Security Administration (SSA). This requirement can be particularly stressful for applicants with a limited work history. You may have employment gaps due to your disabling condition. It’s possible that your disability has already kept you out of work for a few years. To overcome these work history challenges, speak with a skilled disability lawyer who can explain your options.

Work History Requirements for SSDI

The SSA has a number of non-medical requirements for SSDI. To qualify for disability benefits, you must meet certain work history criteria. The main aspect here has to do with work credits.

SSDI Work Credits Explained

The work credits system from the SSA evaluates if you’ve worked long enough to qualify for SSDI. You earn work credits over the course of normal employment. This typically involves traditional work with an employer where you pay FICA taxes on your paycheck. These payroll taxes are normal deductions. 

When you earn a certain dollar amount of employment income, you earn one work credit. For 2023, you need $1,640 in income for one work credit. The SSA adjusts this dollar amount each year, tied to inflation. You can earn up to four credits each year. For 2023, this means earning at least $6,560 in income. 

Most SSDI applicants need 40 work credits to qualify for benefits. Of those 40 work credits, 20 of them must have been within the past ten years. If you have been out of work for five years, it may be tough to qualify for SSDI. A common example is if you’ve taken time off to raise a family. Your employment history has to be relatively recent.

The SSA requires fewer work credits for younger workers. Someone under 24 only needs six credits over a three-year period. A person aged 24 to 31 only needs 12 credits in the past six years. Younger people might not have enough time to accrue enough work credits before becoming disabled. 

Outlining Your Past Work Experience

In addition to work credits, the SSA also wants a detailed account of your work experience. For every job you’ve held in the past 15 years, they want to know such information as:

  • Job title
  • Job duties
  • Dates worked
  • Hours worked per week
  • Rate of pay
  • Equipment used
  • Knowledge and skills required
  • Level of supervision
  • Physical requirements of the job
  • Environmental conditions
  • Other job requirements 

Your work history illustrates the kinds of work you were able to do. The SSA also wants to know if and how your medical condition affected your work. Did you work fewer hours or take more sick days? Did you need more rest beyond your normal breaks? Were there other challenges you faced? Your employer may have made special accommodations for your disability, for instance. 

A fuller picture of your employment can show the SSA if you have transferable skills to other jobs, too. A more detailed work history can improve your chances of receiving disability benefits.

Explaining Periods of Unemployment

You may feel disappointed if you do not satisfy the work credits requirement for SSDI. If you do not have 40 work credits, or you do not have 20 work credits in the past ten years, you may feel like your application is a lost cause. While challenging, you may still qualify for disability benefits. It is vital to document and explain these periods of unemployment for the SSA. 

Even if you meet the work credits criteria, the SSA may still deny your claim. They may not look favorably at periods of inactivity. This is why it’s essential not only to provide a detailed work history but also an explanation for any gaps in employment. 

For example, you may have only worked intermittently. If you can prove this was because of your disability, the SSA may still approve your claim. Employer statements and medical evidence can speak to that. If you left a job after less than six months, it may have been because you couldn’t handle the work requirements. There may have been certain aspects of past jobs you could not do. Explaining these situations adds to your credibility. 

Other Types of Work Arrangements

The SSA takes a broad approach to your work history assessment. Your history is not limited only to traditional jobs. As part of your work history, you can also include:

  • Volunteer work
  • Self-employment
  • Gig work
  • Nontraditional work arrangements

In assessing your case, the SSA looks at all your “past relevant work.” The criteria for “past relevant work” includes:

  • The job was within the past 15 years
  • You kept the job long enough to learn how to do it.
  • The job surpasses the substantial gainful activity (SGA) threshold. 

For 2023, the SGA amount is $1,470 per month. Other types of work, like volunteer and self-employment, may not attain SGA levels. They are worth including to provide the SSA with more context about the work you can and cannot do. Remember that the SSA looks at your ability to do the work rather than whether you can get a job doing that work. A detailed history shows you are a hard worker. You want to work but cannot because of your medical condition. 

The Importance of Medical Evidence

The most critical element of an SSDI application is proving you are disabled. This is absolutely essential. A simple diagnosis is not enough to qualify for disability benefits. You need to prove your medical condition prevents you from being able to work. This means providing the SSA with enough medical evidence to support your claim.

The SSA maintains a Blue Book of qualifying conditions. Under each listing, the SSA outlines specific criteria. For example, an applicant may have asthma. But, many people with asthma are still able to work. To meet the Blue Book listing, an applicant must have a forced expiratory volume (FEV) below a certain value, given their age, height, and sex. They must also have been hospitalized at least three times in a 12-month period due to complications. 

You can still qualify for benefits if your condition is not in the Blue Book. It may take more work to prove you are disabled. The SSA may request a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment in both cases. Completed with a doctor, an RFC assessment looks at what you can do in a work setting. It assesses your physical and mental capabilities. In other words, how does your condition limit your ability to work? How does this relate to your recent past work? Are you able to do any other work?

Even without an RFC, it is vital to provide thorough medical evidence. Medical reports, lab results, and treatment history are common inclusions. Some Blue Book listings have criteria calling for specific testing results. Reports from specialists typically hold more weight in SSDI applications than from a general practitioner (GP). 

Improve Your Chances of Approval

The SSDI application process can feel overwhelming. There are many moving parts, and it can be hard to wrap your head around it all. Keefe Law’s experienced SSDI attorneys help clients navigate these challenges with skill and aplomb. If you think your work history is a problem, consult our lawyers to develop a sound plan. Prepare for your consultation by gathering relevant documentation. 

Don’t worry if you forget something. During the initial meeting, our skilled disability lawyers can assess your case and explain your options. To improve your chances of approval, they may recommend getting letters from past employers. You may seek additional medical evidence to support your claim. If needed, your attorney can guide you through all this, including the appeals process. 

Let us help you assemble the most complete and compelling SSDI application possible. You don’t have to go through this experience alone. 

Patrick Hartwig
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Managing Attorney, Keefe Disability Law