Social Security: Incredibly Dated Job Opportunities Cost Thousands Their Disability Benefits Each Year

Shot of a young nurse caring for a senior man in a retirement home.
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If you have what it takes to be a nut sorter, dowel inspector, egg processor or cutter-and-paster of press clippings, congratulations — the Social Security Administration says you can work those jobs instead of having to rely on disability benefits.

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There’s one problem, though: None of those jobs exist anymore, even though they’re still listed in the federal government’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Because they are still on the list, the SSA can deny Social Security disability benefits on the theory that you can work those jobs instead — despite the fact that they are obsolete.

Every year, thousands of Social Security disability claimants are denied benefits because of outdated labor market data, The Washington Post reported. The vast majority of the 12,700 entries in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles were last updated in 1977. The U.S. Department of Labor, which originally compiled the index, abandoned it in 1991 because of the nation’s economic shift to information and services jobs from blue-collar jobs.

But the SSA still uses the index when reviewing disability claims and assessing a claimant’s capacity to work. Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are available to those who have already built up a work record but have developed medical conditions that are either terminal or prevent them from working for at least 12 months, according to Benefits.gov.

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However, the SSA can deny benefits if it determines that a claimant can work certain jobs — including obsolete jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. As the WaPo noted, the index lists 137 unskilled, sedentary jobs that most closely align with the skills and limitations of people who apply for disability benefits. But most of those jobs were long ago offshored or outsourced, and many disappeared altogether.

The SSA even admitted as much in a document from 2011, when it cited a study that found “a substantial number of cases” where the adjudicator cited jobs that might be obsolete. Examples included addresser, tube operator and magnetic-tape winder.

Although the SSA has spent the last couple of decades deliberating over how to update the list — and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the process — the agency is still not using the revised list. This means claimants are still being denied benefits because they’ve been advised to take jobs that are no longer available.

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“It’s a great injustice to these people,” Kevin Liebkemann, a New Jersey attorney who trains disability attorneys, told the WaPo. “We’re relying on job information from the 1970s to say thumbs-up or thumbs-down to people who desperately need benefits. It’s horrifying.”

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.
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