The “worn out worker” rule, a little-known provision of the Social Security regulations, applies to some disability applicants whose employment history consists of many years of unskilled physical labor. The worn-out worker rule allows for eligible disability claimants who would otherwise have their disability claim denied to be awarded Social Security benefits. To qualify, the disability applicant must:
- have what’s defined as a “marginal education.” In general, the claimant must have a low skill level in academic areas such as reasoning, arithmetic, and language. A claimant who has completed no higher than the 6th grade is usually considered to have a marginal education.
- have worked 35 years or more of performing only arduous unskilled physical labor positions. This could include some farm workers, mine workers, and others whose job duties were solely of a physical nature, and
- be unable to perform their previous job duties due to a severe physical or mental impairment (or a combination of impairments). Just as for all Social Security disability claims, the impairment or impairments must be expected to last at least one year (or result in death).
Before deciding whether or not the worn-out worker rule applies to a disability applicant, the Social Security claims adjudicator (either a claims examiner or administrative law judge) will first evaluate the applicant’s disability status using Social Security’s five-step sequential evaluation process. If the disability claimant is not found disabled under these any of the steps, then the claims examiner or administrative law judge should consider the worn-out worker rule.
Many of the Social Security applicants who could qualify for disability benefits under the worn-out worker rule are actually approved because they meet the requirements for disability under a medical listing or residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment. In that case, the claims examiner or judge never considers the work-out worker rule.
Similarly, an applicant who is at least 55 years old, has no more than a limited education (11th grade or less and has not obtained a GED), and has no past relevant work experience will be found disabled as long as the individual has at least one severe, medically determinable impairment regardless of their residual functional capacity. See 20 CFR § 404.1562.