Unskilled Work, Semi-Skilled Work, and Skilled Work: Past Jobs and Social Security Disability

How Social Security disability defines unskilled work, semi-skilled work, and skilled work and why it matters.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you've applied for disability benefits and Social Security agrees you can't do your past work, the agency will look at the skill levels of your past jobs to assess whether there are other similarly skilled jobs that you are able to do, despite your physical or mental limitations.

Why the Skill Level of Your Past Work Matters

Skill levels come into play both when Social Security looks at whether there are other jobs you can learn to do and when Social Security assesses whether you fall into any of its "grid rules." The grid rules are a set of charts arranged by RFC that Social Security uses to decide if a person is disabled, based on his or her age, education, and skills. If you have "transferable skills" – knowledge learned at one job that you could use at another job – you can't qualify for disability using the grid rules. (For further explanation, see Nolo's article on the disability grid rules.)

Many times disability applicants think their past jobs are unskilled and that they have no jobs skills. Then they are surprised to be denied for disability benefits because Social Security categorized their job as semi-skilled (and because Social Security says they have job skills they can transfer to a new job). For instance, a shipping and receiving clerk might think he or she is doing unskilled work because the job mainly involves loading and unloading boxes, but Social Security considers this to be is a semi-skilled job, and could find that someone who had worked as a shipping and receiving clerk would have clerical job skills that he or she could use at another type of job.

Skill Levels

Social Security categorizes jobs into skilled work, semi-skilled work, and unskilled work. It relies on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to classify jobs into these categories. Let's look at what each category of work entails and which category some common jobs fall into.

Unskilled Work

Unskilled work involves simple tasks and doesn't usually require one to exercise judgment. It typically requires only a month or less to learn. Many, but not all, unskilled jobs require physical strength or coordination.

Here are some examples of unskilled jobs:

  • parking lot attendant
  • cleaner or janitor
  • fast food worker
  • line operator
  • messenger
  • sewing machine operator (semi-automatic)
  • construction laborer
  • information desk clerk, and
  • vegetable harvester/picker (and some other types of farm workers).

If you have a history of only unskilled work, Social Security can't say there are semi-skilled or skilled jobs you can do; you can do only unskilled work, and only if your limitations allow it.

Also, unskilled jobs don't produce transferable skills, so if your only jobs have been unskilled and you are 50 years or older, you have a chance of fitting into a grid rule that says you're disabled. (On the other hand, if you have transferable job skills and you can do at least sit-down work, you won't be found disabled.)

Semi-Skilled Work

Semi-skilled work requires paying attention to detail or protecting against risks but it doesn't include complex job duties. Semi-skilled work doesn't require you to have advanced training or education and typically takes between three and six months to fully learn a semi-skilled job.

Some semi-skilled jobs require monitoring, quality checking, or doing repetitive tasks. Here are some examples of semi-skilled jobs:

  • retail salesperson
  • security guard
  • telephone solicitor
  • waiter/waitress
  • bartender
  • flight attendant
  • taxi driver
  • laundry operator
  • nurse's assistant
  • furniture mover
  • file clerk, and
  • fisherman.

If your past work history includes any semi-skilled work, Social Security may say there are many unskilled or semi-skilled jobs you can do, if your limitations allow it. And it's less likely that you'll fit into a disabled grid rule, because Social Security is more likely to find you have some transferable job skills.

Skilled Work

Skilled work requires workers to use their judgment to make decisions and may require them to measure, calculate, read, or estimate. Skilled work often has specific qualifications such as educational degrees or professional training and usually requires intellectual reasoning and problem-solving skills. It typically takes six months to a year or more to learn a skilled job.

Here are some examples of skilled jobs:

  • secretary or administrative assistant
  • sales representative
  • customer service representative
  • tailor
  • nurse
  • office clerk
  • teacher or teacher's aide
  • fast food cook
  • travel agent, and
  • mortgage processor.

It's difficult for a disability applicant with a history of skilled work to be found disabled – unless the applicant can't do even sedentary work – because there are many different types of skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled sedentary jobs that a person with skills may be able to do. And it's much less likely for a skilled worker to fit into a grid rule, because someone with transferable job skills won't be found disabled under the grid rules.

Determining Whether a Job Is Skilled or Unskilled

Some types of jobs straddle two categories. For instance, the job of cashier can fall into either the unskilled category or the semi-skilled category. The DOT classifies grocery checkers as semi-skilled workers and puts other types of cashiers, such as parking lot, dining room, self-service gasoline, and change-booth cashiers, into the semi-skilled category.

The best way to see how Social Security will classify your job is to search the Dictionary of Occupational Titles for the occupation that best matches your job (both in terms of title and duties). You need to look at the SVP number assigned to the job: SVPs of 1 and 2 mean the job is unskilled, SVPs of 3 and 4 mean the job is semi-skilled, and SVPs of 5 and above mean the job is considered skilled.

Disability Denials Based on Mistaken Job Skills

Sometimes Social Security mistakenly thinks a disability applicant's past job included job skills when it actually didn't. This usually happens because the agency has gotten the details of the applicant's job wrong. (The agency will assume you did a job as it is generally performed; if you didn't, you may not have gained the job skills Social Security thinks you did. For more information about this, see Nolo's articles on when Social Security makes mistakes about your job history and proving you don't have transferable job skills.

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