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Social Security Might Deny Your Disability Claim If You Could Be A Button Spindler Or Nut Sorter
Update the 1977 book of available jobs? But that would cost money!
As anyone who's gone through the process of applying for disability knows — or anyone who knows someone who has, for that matter — it can be a long, grueling process, often requiring multiple rounds of paperwork and appeals. The common wisdom is that almost everyone gets denied the first try, although I haven't looked into the actual stats. Earlier this fall, Mother Jones ran an infuriating look at the many frustrations in the process, calling it "Kafkaesque," which may understate things. Just finding yourself transformed into a hideous insect might not be enough to meet the requirements.
Tuesday, the Washington Post published a deep dive on one especially bizarre step (gift linky) near the end of the process of determining eligibility. After an applicant has provided exhaustive medical documentation that they're unable to work due to severe impairments that meet the Social Security Administration's standards, and had an assessment of what activities they are capable of doing, the applicant has a hearing where a a vocational expert identifies for a Social Security judge potential jobs the applicant might conceivably hold, if any.
There's just one teensy problem with this step: It involves a list of job descriptions that was last substantially updated in 1977. So people are told that they don't qualify for disability benefits because they could conceivably be employed in "jobs that virtually no longer exist in the United States," like nut sorter (picking out shriveled or wormy nuts and foreign matter from nut meats on a conveyor belt), dowel inspector (checking wooden dowels for flaws and removing defective ones), or an egg processor , who works not with eggs for eating, but with those used in making vaccines. The Post notes that virtually all such jobs are automated or done in other countries these days.
The jobs are spelled out in an exhaustive publication known as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The vast majority of the 12,700 entries were last updated in 1977. The Department of Labor, which originally compiled the index, abandoned it 31 years ago in a sign of the economy’s shift from blue-collar manufacturing to information and services.
Social Security, though, still relies on it at the final stage when a claim is reviewed. The government, using strict vocational rules, assesses someone’s capacity to work and if jobs exist “in significant numbers” that they could still do.
Worse, the story makes clear, the vocational experts routinely overstate the number of supposedly available jobs in those largely obsolete fields.
Social Security knows the listings in the dictionary are outdated, but the agency has taken forever to take any steps to modernize its assessments:
For the last 14 years, the agency has promised courts, claimants, government watchdogs and Congress that a new, state-of-the-art system representing the characteristics of modern work would soon be available to improve the quality of its 2 million disability decisions per year.
But after spending at least $250 million since 2012 to build a directory of 21st century jobs, an internal fact sheet shows, Social Security is not using it, leaving antiquated vocational rules in place to determine whether disabled claimants win or lose. Social Security has estimated that the project’s initial cost will reach about $300 million, audits show.
For perspective, the disability system costs a total of about $200 billion annually. A few hundred million dollars is a lot of money, but it seems like the sort of thing Congress could fund, for the sake of getting support to people who qualify for it.
The Post points out that the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics — the folks who bring us all the employment reports and inflation stats and all that — has
built a new, interactive system for Social Security using a national sample of 60,000 employers and 440 occupations covering 95 percent of the economy. But Social Security still has not instructed its staff to use it.
Why not? Nobody at the Social Security Administration has said.
Advocates are hopeful that a more sane approach to updated jobs data can be put in place so that people at least won't be denied benefits because an examiner says they could get jobs that just plain don't exist, like addressing envelopes by hand or with a typewriter. If you're going to deny people benefits, then at least do it on the basis of real jobs that they could realistically do, not a fiction that seems like an excuse to keep costs down.
As we like to say, go read the whole thing. Joe Biden needs to have a long talk with acting Social Security Administrator Kilolo Kijakazi and with folks from the disabled community to get this cockamamie system fixed. For fuckssake.
[ WaPo (gift link) / Mother Jones / Photo: John Chuckman's Chicago Nostalgia and Memorabilia, open permission with credit]
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