What does a vocational expert do at your Social Security Hearing?

During the application process for social security disability benefits, you may find yourself overwhelmed. There are rules and regulations that will be wholly new to you, and sometimes there are people involved with roles and expertise that you might not understand. One such person is the vocational expert, or VE. They are present at many hearings held before the Social Security Administration (SSA) and an administrative law judge, especially in cases where benefits have been denied. They assist judges in making a decision about the claimant’s application and appeal. Becoming more informed about who they are and what they do is important since their testimony can affect the result of your social security application.

A vocational expert is a non-attorney expert witness at a SSA hearing who is trained to understand the labor market. They can review your work history and determine the skills and level of exertion required to perform the different types of jobs. They bring a wealth of knowledge from the field of vocational rehabilitation, and with that they know current market and occupational trends in local labor markets. Vocational experts use their knowledge in job counseling and job placement to decide what appropriate forms of employment exist for disabled workers, while retaining the knowledge of the SSA’s standard definition of disability.

They are expected to know the difference between unskilled labor (that which requires little to no training and can be learned in a short amount of time), semi-skilled labor (that which requires some skill, some attention to detail, and an expectation of repetitive manual tasks), and skilled labor (that which requires higher qualifications to perform the job correctly). They also need to understand the levels of exertion required by different jobs. This includes sedentary jobs like office jobs, light duty, medium duty, and heavy duty. The claimant’s work history will inform the vocational expert’s decision-making process, as to whether they have the ability to work at a certain skill and exertion level at some future point.

Vocational experts are paid by the SSA to be impartial in their opinions, so they will not necessarily advocate on your behalf like an attorney would. They are there for the purpose of providing an opinion about your ability to work -- either in your former area of employment, or if you can work in a new field. They are frequently present in cases where a denial of disability payments is being appealed and will provide answers to the administrative law judge’s questions about the claimant’s ability to work. If, hypothetically, the claimant is deemed unable to perform their former job, the vocational expert will offer an opinion as to whether they can perform work in a new field, or if they are unable to work at all. 

The proceedings follow a format where you will first testify about your work history and disability, then the vocational expert will testify, followed by the judge’s questions for the VE, and then your attorney’s cross-examination of the VE. As mentioned above, the judge will frame their questions as hypotheticals, as in “could an individual with this background, education, work history, and skill level perform this type of work?” If, for example, you are unable to work in a medium duty or heavy duty setting, the judge might ask about the possibility of a light duty or sedentary work setting, whereby the VE will offer their opinion. When the time comes for your attorney to cross examine the VE, they will point out additional limitations that the claimant may have to rule out these other possible fields of employment. Because all types of work require some level of physical activity, like bending or lifting, your attorney might be able to get the vocational expert to concede to your inability to do light duty work or work in a sedentary position.

Being informed about the roles and responsibilities of those involved in your social security hearing can empower you to get the most of your representation. Finding the right injury attorney who can offer reasonable suggestions and counter arguments to the vocational expert is essential to your success at your social security hearing.

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