A vocational expert (VE) is a witness called by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to testify at disability appeal hearings. Although they are not present at every hearing, VEs appear at a fair number of them. In general, their purpose is to give an opinion about what jobs you can perform, given your alleged limitations.
VEs are called on to testify at disability hearings based on the fact that they usually have college degrees and have significant experience in the field of vocational rehabilitation. Their qualifications include, among other things: 1) an understanding of how SSA determines whether a claimant is disabled; 2) knowledge of job placement and vocational counseling for disabled workers; and 3) experience with current occupational and industrial trends in local labor markets.
At your hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) and your attorney, if you have one, will ask you questions about your disability and your prior work history. If present, a vocational expert will then be asked to classify each of your prior relevant jobs and indicate whether he or she believes you could still perform those job functions and, if not, whether you have transferable skills that could be utilized in a different job.
After the VE testifies, the ALJ will then ask him or her a series of hypothetical questions based on your documented impairments. If the VE thinks you could still do your old job, the ALJ will deny your claim. If the VE says that you can’t do your past work, the ALJ will ask more hypotheticals to see if there are any other jobs you could do. Should the VE believe there are jobs that could be performed with your limitations, he or she will provide the job titles, job codes, and the number of such jobs available in the area where you live.
As you can imagine, a VE’s testimony at your hearing could make or break your case. Although you are not required to have an attorney represent you at this stage of your claim, it is advisable, since an experienced disability lawyer will know how to cross-examine a vocational expert appropriately and effectively.
After the ALJ is finished asking the VE hypothetical questions, your attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine him or her to rule out the possible jobs that the VE said you can perform. This cross-examination is the most important part of the hearing because if you do not challenge the VE’s opinion on whether you can work, you will likely lose your claim.
Remember, however, that while the VE will be quite knowledgeable about your work history, he or she is not the expert on your medical history and will not be able to provide opinions about that aspect of your case. That is why it is critical to have a thorough knowledge of the medical records in your file as well as an experienced attorney representing you who can ensure all the relevant information is presented to the ALJ so that he or she can approve your claim.