Social Security Hearings: Competitive and Non-Competitive Work

What does it mean if the Administrative Law Judge or Vocational Expert mentions “non-competitive work” during a Social Security disability hearing?

“Non-competitive” refers to types of work:

  • Competitive work is, well, just regular work; with no set-asides, no accommodations beyond the norm.
  • Work that is performed under special circumstances or that is set aside for disabled individuals (for example: work through Goodwill Industries) is typically viewed as “non-competitive.”

SSR 05-02 (a Social Security Ruling) provides guidance about what constitutes “work under special condition.”

Performance of Work Under Special Conditions: One situation under which your SGA-level work may have ended, or may have been reduced to the non-SGA level, as set out above, is “the removal of special conditions related to your impairment that are essential to your further performance of work.” That is, you may have worked under conditions especially arranged to accommodate your impairment or you may have worked through an unusual job opportunity, such as in a sheltered workshop. Special or unusual conditions may be evidenced in many ways. For example, you:

a. May have required and received special assistance from other employees in performing the job; or
b. Were allowed to work irregular hours or take frequent rest periods; or
c. Were provided special equipment or were assigned work especially suited to your impairment; or
d. Were able to work only within a framework of especially arranged circumstances, such as where other persons helped you prepare for or get to and from work; or
e. Were permitted to perform at a lower standard of productivity or efficiency than other employees; or
f. Were granted the opportunity to work, despite your medical condition, because of family relationship, past association with the firm, or other altruistic reason.

Remember that these are examples only and other accommodations may also qualify as work performed under special conditions.

Social Security only considers competitive work in deciding disability cases. If an individual is not able to perform “competitive work” or is “limited to non-competitive employment” or if there is “no competitive work available” that is usually a good sign for a disability case

Keep in mind that a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (the hearing judge) often asks the vocational expert several hypothetical questions with different sets of limitations. There could be “no competitive work” under one set of limitations, and still be work possible under another set of limitations. What I am saying that while hearing “non-competitive work” come up in a hearing is usually a good sign, it does not automatically mean the case will be approved.

  • Jimmie

    Mr Tomas:

    I wrote to you concerning my hearing before a judge. I originally applied for SSDI in December of 2008; from an auto accident that happened in May of 2008. As I went to the hearing (without representation), as I said, the Judge asked the VE 3 hypotheticals. For my last job all the VE said was that I was considered “non-competitive.” And during the hearing I submitted to the court several documents from emergency rooms, and the treatments that I had had over the past 14 months. Well, I just found out that the judge ruled fully in my favor. I am not sure what date he will use for my back-pay, either the date I applied for SSDI or my auto accident on May of 2008. My question for you is; The letter I received is just an award letter, and I was told my benefit letter will follow soon. Can you tell me how long? The judge ruled in my favor on Nov.12, 2010. With your expert experience, can you tell me how long it will take to receive my first benefit check. Secondly, I was told by the SSA that when it comes to back pay, two things slow the payment: Lawyers Payments & any Federal Debt that still carry a balance. Once those two are paid, we get what is left. I did not use a lawyer and I don’t have any federal debt. So, how soon could I be expecting my back pay. Thanks

    • http://planet10tech.com/ TomaszStasiuk

      In my experience, a “Notice of Award” means that the payment center is processing the case and a check (or direct deposit) is not far behind. However, as you note, a lot depends on whether Social Security finds any problems that may hold up releasing funds — such as owing the government money.

      However, as you already know, just waiting for SSA to get to an individual’s case takes the most amount of time. If Social Security is currently working on your case, as the Notice of Award suggests, it should not take much longer.

      • Stormystar

        Your mention of owing money got me thinking, 2 questions actually. I’ve been fighting since August of 2010 for disability, first they said not disabled, then my appeal was could do some other type of work, now I have a hearing scheduled for April 23. If I win, I know they’ll take out the assistance I’ve gotten from the county (I’m in MD) but, back when I was working the last few years my state tax return was taken toward a tuition mistake from adding a course that my loan was supposed to cover and didn’t. I never got much but if I win SSi, SSDI or both can they take my benefits towards that? Also, my student loan defaulted and my home was foreclosed on when I was floundering still trying to work, and the student loan people said if I can prove I’m disabled I don’t have to pay the loan but if I ever earn again I do. Could they take that? Even disabled (autism, PTSD, severe social anxiety and panic attacks, bipolar, severe depression and a back injury) I want to finish my degree, I was Criminal Justice and Human Services double major with a minor in Foreign Languages, my dream is to start a rescue for horses and special needs animals and combine it with a charity to help people who fall through the cracks in the system like I did, and I’m working on a business plan, but I’d need help affording school. (Online classes-even talking on the phone sets me off on bad days.) I also want to take classes to become fluent in American Sign Language; I tend to lose language during meltdown periods which can last several days but can still communicate with the ASL I do know, so I feel like even though the classroom setting would be hard it would help my sister take care of me since she’s the only person I’m not afraid of. I live near Gallaudet so could do the summer intensive but worry that they’d say if I can do that I can work, but really I can’t do it and would be forcing it for a way to communicate and hopefully eventually open my rescue and someday get off benefits. I don’t know how school affects things especially when I tend to go for the classes that fascinate me, though after going through the system I want to eventually help others who are losing everything waiting. but I also worry they’ll say I’m not disabled because I still ride horses but I went from being very competitive and winning a lot to my sister drives me to the barn when no one else is there and I deal with the physical pain to have a few minutes free of fear. Sorry to be long winded but I’d appreciate your thoughts. Thank you for this awesome resource.


        • http://stasiukfirm.com/ TomaszStasiuk

          Every case is different and everyone’s situation is unique. This is why people often work with a lawyer for the length of their case (often over a year) to get a nuanced plan addressing those details. 

          If you don’t already have a lawyer, consider working with one in your area. Even if some of your back benefits were to go to paying back loans or defaults (and I cannot say if they would or would not), having regular benefits and health insurance would still probably make your future much easier. As far as going to school, I have a general article on how this may effect a disability claim here: http://www.socialsecurityinsider.com/2010/02/how-does-going-to-school-affects-a-social-security-disability-benefits-case/ Good luck and don’t give up!

  • Blubear48

    Believe it or not this is a true story…My cousin was run over by a car while walking down a road in Kentucky near his home. He was nearly killed and had to sue for damages. I went to Kentucky to support him at the court house. It was a small town and the Judge heard Social Security Cases along with every thing else. In fact he heard a Social Security case that day. The Man asking for SSDI appeared without an Attorney and represented himself. He had no Medical Records to support a Disability. The Judge ask him why he should be granted SSDI. The man calmly told the Judge that he must masterbate every 15 minutes and he is helpless in preventing himself from masterbating. He said he can’t find a job that would give him a Break every 15 minutes.. Every one in the court room including the Judge was stunned. It was kind of like time stood still for just an instant. That changed when The Man whipped it out and displayed to everyone his DISABILITY. The Judge turned around in his swivel chair and said…Give that man his check and get him out of here. I guess that falls under the Special Conditions Ruling of SSR 05-02. So if your in a bind and your way behind and Social Security is not willing to make a deal just beat it!

    • http://planet10tech.com/ TomaszStasiuk

      I don’t get much Social Security humor on the site…

  • William C. Bernhardi

    See CLEVELAND V. POLICY MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS CORP., 526 U.S. 795, 120 F.3d 513 (1999) to support the principle that work done with accommodations is not considered by Social Security in making disability determinations. This an Americans with Disabilities Act case in which the Commissioner of SSA filed an amicus brief upon which the Court relied in it’s finding that SSD does not preclude the possibility of ADA coverage.

    • http://planet10tech.com/ TomaszStasiuk

      Interesting case:

      “By way of contrast, when the SSA determines whether an individual is disabled for SSDI purposes, it does not take the possibility of “reasonable accommodation” into account, nor need an applicant refer to the possibility of reasonable accommodation when she applies for SSDI. See Memorandum from Daniel L. Skoler, Associate Comm’r for Hearings and Appeals, SSA, to Administrative Appeals Judges, reprinted in 2 Social Security Practice Guide, App. §15C[9], pp. 15””401 to 15””402 (1998). The omission reflects the facts that the SSA receives more than 2.5 million claims for disability benefits each year; its administrative resources are limited; the matter of “reasonable accommodation” may turn on highly disputed workplace-specific matters; and an SSA misjudgment about that detailed, and often fact-specific matter would deprive a seriously disabled person of the critical financial support the statute seeks to provide. See Brief for United States et al. as Amici Curiae 10””11, and n. 2, 13. The result is that an ADA suit claiming that the plaintiff can perform her job with reasonable accommodation may well prove consistent with an SSDI claim that the plaintiff could not perform her own job (or other jobs)without it.”