How Social Security Judges Your Physical or Mental Capacity (RFC) for Work

Your residual functional capacity (RFC) is an important part of a Social Security disability determination.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

One of the most important steps of the disability determination process involves evaluating the mental or physical limitations you have that affect your ability to work. Some limitations may eliminate only a few jobs, while others can keep you from performing jobs you've done in the past. Still other limitations can rule out all work entirely.

Because Social Security awards disability benefits to people who have a medical condition that makes them unable to work full-time, figuring out what limitations you have is often the deciding factor between an approval and a denial. The process by which the agency determines what you can and can't do at work is called an assessment of your residual functional capacity (RFC).

What's the Meaning of "RFC"?

Social Security defines "residual functional capacity" as "what an individual can still do despite their limitations". The agency goes on to further describe RFC in employment-related terms, meaning "the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis."

The claims examiner handling your application will review your medical records and your daily activities before filling out a residual functional capacity form. The RFC form will contain a list of work activities that you can perform as well as restrictions on what you can't do because of your condition. For example, your RFC form might say you can stand for up to two hours and sit for four or more hours, but you can't operate hazardous machinery.

Physical Residual Functional Capacity

Almost every disability applicant with a severe physical impairment will have an RFC that contains restrictions on physical tasks they should avoid performing at work. Restrictions on strength-related activities, such as lifting and carrying objects, are referred to as your exertional level.

RFC Exertional Levels

Social Security classifies physical work activities into five exertional levels that the agency will use when determining your RFC:

  • Sedentary work means that you can stand and walk no more than two hours out of an eight-hour day, and you can't lift more than 10 pounds occasionally or five pounds frequently.
  • Light work means that you can stand and walk up to six hours out of an eight-hour day, but you can't lift more than 20 pounds occasionally or 10 pounds frequently.
  • Medium work means that you can stand and walk up to six hours out of an eight-hour day, and you can lift up to 50 pounds occasionally or 25 pounds frequently.
  • Heavy work means you can stand and walk enough to do medium work, and you can lift up to 100 pounds occasionally and 50 pounds frequently.
  • Very heavy work means you can stand and walk enough to do heavy work, and you can lift more than 100 pounds occasionally and more than 50 pounds frequently.

Your exertional level has a big impact on whether you'll be granted disability benefits, especially if you're 50 years of age or older. That's because Social Security has a special set of rules—known as the medical-vocational grid—that determine when applicants with certain RFC levels should be considered disabled.

For example, if you're 52, you've always worked in skilled construction (heavy work), and your RFC limits to sit-down jobs (sedentary work), you'll likely qualify for disability benefits under grid rule 201.10 even though you can physically perform sedentary work. The grid rules direct different findings of "disabled" or "not disabled" depending on your RFC, age, and work experience.

Even if the grid rules don't apply to you—they typically don't for claimants younger than 50)—Social Security uses the exertional level of your RFC to determine whether you could meet the physical demands of your past jobs. If you're unable to perform your past work, the agency then needs to see if other jobs exist that you can do. At this stage, non-exertional limitations in your RFC become more important.

Non-Exertional Limitations

Non-exertional limitations are restrictions in your RFC that don't involve strength, but still affect the types of job tasks you can do. Examples of non-exertional restrictions include:

  • how long you're able to use your hands, fingers, or arms in order to reach, type, or move objects (manipulative limitations)
  • whether you can stoop, crouch, crawl, or climb ladders (postural limitations)
  • any prohibitions against exposure to temperature extremes, sunlight, fumes, or dust (environmental limitations), and
  • being unable to see in dim light, hear in loud warehouses, or speak clearly enough to be understood by others (sensory limitations).

While exertional levels in your RFC can eliminate large sections of jobs at once based on strength demands, non-exertional limitations are typically more finely tuned. Social Security uses non-exertional limitations in your RFC to rule out specific job functions in your past work and other jobs that aren't addressed by the exertional level alone.

Mental Residual Functional Capacity

Social Security is required to investigate evidence of any mental health conditions mentioned on your disability application or in your medical records. If you have a severe mental health impairment, the agency must assess your mental residual functional capacity.

Mental RFCs are assessments of how well you can meet the intellectual, emotional, and cognitive demands of full-time work. Your claims examiner will fill out a mental RFC form with details about your ability to do the following:

  • understand, remember, and carry out instructions
  • maintain attention and concentration for extended periods of time
  • perform tasks on a schedule
  • sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision
  • make simple decisions and judgments
  • interact appropriately with the public
  • respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors
  • get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them
  • maintain socially acceptable standards of neatness and cleanliness
  • respond appropriately to changes in the work setting
  • tolerate normal levels of stress, and
  • maintain regular attendance and be on time.

If you're applying for benefits based only on a mental condition and there's nothing physically preventing you from working, you won't be able to use the grid rules to get disability. But many applicants have both physical and mental impairments, and Social Security has to consider the combined effect of those impairments when assessing your RFC. So if you have even a moderate physical impairment, you may be able to take advantage of the grid rules if your mental RFC contains limitations that keep you from performing skilled jobs.

Otherwise, you'll need to show that your mental RFC contains restrictions that rule out work at all exertional levels. In Social Security lingo, these restrictions are referred to as being "incompatible with competitive employment." Examples of limitations in your mental RFC that aren't compatible with competitive employment include expected absences of more than one day per month, having reduced productivity below employer tolerances, or needing to work in isolation.

Ask Your Doctors to Complete a Physical or Mental RFC Form

Social Security claims examiners aren't the only people who can fill out a residual functional capacity for you. The agency values any input your doctors provide that can help shed light on your limitations and make sure your RFC assessment is accurate.

You can even print out a blank physical RFC or mental RFC form to give to your doctor, counselor, or therapist for them to fill out. If you're unsure how to approach your doctor about the form, see our article on getting your medical providers' help with your disability case. You can also review our article on making sure your doctor's opinion is effective for information on how Social Security evaluates medical source statements.

While you don't need a lawyer at any stage of the disability determination process, having an experienced disability attorney makes it more likely that all of your physical and mental limitations will be accounted for in your RFC. Many disability lawyers offer free consultations, so you can "test drive" a potential representative to see if they're a good fit for you.

Updated April 5, 2024

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