What is Past Relevant Work?
Discussion about a Claimant’s Past Relevant Work (PRW) happens at nearly every SSI and Disability ALJ hearing. PRW is the work that Claimant performed in the 15 years preceding the hearing. The work that Claimant performed on a full-time basis is generally considered “Past Relevant Work (PRW)”. When a Disability Claimant does not have a listing level impairment, the adjudicator will proceed to Step Four of the Five-Step Disability Process. Step Four notes that a Claimant’s Past Relevant Work must be analyzed to see whether or not that Claimant can return to their previous work, and whether there were any skills taught by that work that could be transferred to other work. ALJ look into Claimant’s PRW by examining the scanned disability report and often seeking direct testimony at the hearing in the presence of the Vocational Expert.
What Should I Say About Past Relevant Work?
I have seen Claimants tend to treat the disability report like a resume and the Past Relevant Work conversation like a job interview. This is not a good approach in the context of disability, and one should stick to “just the facts”. Puffery may often be used when seeking a job, and people who are unable to work any longer may also romanticize their past work as “the good old days”. Both of these practices are understandable, but can be very damaging in the context of disability proceedings, and should be addressed with Claimants prior to their hearings. Claimants may feel that it is in their interest to discuss their past work in a light that is likely to impress prospective employers or their peers. Very rarely would traditional conversations cause a former worker to actually discuss the grind of their day-to-day vocations outside of the job interview process, especially if their prior work was boring or not requiring skill. Making one’s past look more lovely that it was is a natural reaction, but this sort of puffery can have a very negative impact on a Claimant’s case.
“Warts and All” Truth Works Best
When a Claimant testifies under oath with the ALJ or the VE, I cannot recommend strongly enough for them to just tell the “warts and all” facts. If a Claimant’s Past Relevant Work involved sitting at a desk, answering phones, and transferring calls, they should say this directly and unequivocally. Even if the title was “Office Manager” or “Operations Director” these titles may belie the fact that the job was little more than a support role. As such, clearly testifying about the actual work performed will prevent additional skills being imputed to them. If a Claimant testified that they typed numbers into a spreadsheet for handing off to an analysis team, then this is what they should directly testify to. Having computer and analysis skills assumed by the ALJ or VE may create an opinion that transferable skills exist, which will change the entire analysis of a case.
In addition to not encouraging the ALJ or VE to assume extra skills, it is important to discuss management history specifically. If part of a Claimant’s job involved overseeing activities on a job site when the boss was absent, make sure that the Claimants discuss the frequency of this occurrence, and the responsibilities with which they were tasked. If it was a rare occurrence, then these skills should not be assumed to have been developed. Additionally, it is common for managers to have a higher specific vocational preparation period (SVP) and lower exertional level than laborers. Allowing the adjudicators to believe that a Claimant was a manager when this was not the case will problems when analyzing whether or not a Claimant can return to Past Relevant Work or transfer their skills to less arduous work.
In summary, discussing the “warts and all” actual role as it was performed by the Claimant in their Past Relevant Work is most desirable. This may require coaching and preparation in advance of a disability hearing to avoid pitfalls, but preparing well may save heartache later.