Setting Expectations for Claimant Ability to Work: Investigating the Occupational Requirements and Functional Capacity of Workers with Early Onset Health Conditions

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Abstract

When determining a claimant’s eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) assesses whether his/her health condition (e.g., back/spine problems) sufficiently impairs his/her functional capacity (e.g., ability to lift/carry weight) so that the he/she is unable to meet the requirements (e.g., need to lift/carry 25 pounds) of his/her previous occupation and other possible occupations. Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) and Occupational Requirements Survey (ORS), we compare the occupational requirements of workers with and without a given health condition in order to understand what to expect from claimants with that health condition. Although sample sizes are limiting and ORS data collection is not yet complete, we find some evidence that workers’ occupational requirements accommodate their health conditions. This evidence suggests that claimants with these health conditions may be able to fulfill the requirements in these occupations. We do find some evidence of the opposite causality: Workers may experience health conditions later in life from occupational requirements that may have caused their health conditions. This evidence is a caution against using data without onset information to inform claimant-ability expectations. Overall, this report provides evidence that national surveys with occupation, health, and function questions have the potential to inform revisions to the SSA disability determination process by providing information on people with health conditions who are working and meeting the requirements of a variety of occupations.

Key Findings

  • Evidence from workers with certain health conditions suggests they are working in occupations in which the requirements accommodate their health conditions. For example, the mean “within-occupation percent of workers for which “climbing ramps or stairs is required” is 20 percentage points for workers with “back or spine problems,” which is 1.5 percentage points less than for workers without “back or spine problems.” This is evidence that claimants with “back or spine problems” may be able to work in such occupations.
  • Evidence from workers who experience health conditions later in life suggests that fulfilling occupational requirements may lead to health conditions. For instance, the mean “within-occupation average maximum pounds required to lifted or carried” is 20.9 pounds for workers with early onset “back or spine problems,” which is 5.6 percentage points less than for workers with late onset “back or spine problems.” This evidence is a caution against using data without onset information to inform expectations about claimant ability to fulfill occupational requirements.
  • Population-based survey data on the requirements of occupations held by workers with health conditions and functional limitations, such as the Survey of Income and Program Participation Social Security Administration Supplement data merged with Occupational Requirements Survey estimates has the potential to inform revisions to the SSA disability determination process. This potential would be improved with an increase in the specificity of survey questions related to the onset health conditions and the onset of corresponding functional limitations.

Citation

Houtenville, Andrew J., and Deniz Ozabaci. 2019. “Setting Expectations for Claimant Ability to Work: Investigating the Occupational Requirements and Functional Capacity of Workers with Early Onset Health Conditions.” Ann Arbor, MI. University of Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center (MRDRC) Working Paper; MRDRC WP 2019-404. https://mrdrc.isr.umich.edu/publications/papers/pdf/wp404.pdf

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Project

Paper ID

WP 2019-404

Publication Type

Working Paper

Publication Year

2019