Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dating service

One of the most enjoyable aspects of holding a Social Security hearing for me is learning how jobs are actually done. Some jobs are specific to a geographical area, so learning about them is part of understanding the fabric of place. I've described such jobs in prior posts on tow boats [] and the cotton module builder []. In this same vein I was looking forward to a case this past week that involved a MetroLink operator. MetroLink is the light rail I ride every work day, so I had a lot of questions. Unfortunately, she overslept and missed her hearing.

Sure, it's possible to read a description of how to be a “hand packer” in a factory, but it's entirely different to hear a person who has worked for 10 years at a tea factory describe how you get 15,000 little tea bags into boxes every eight hours without going crazy. Since one of the first things I have to decide in every case is whether the claimant can return to his or her “past relevant work,” I need to get a pretty clear picture of how it was actually done. In my decisions I'm required to reference the job descriptions in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) but that was last updated in 1992. I believe it's much more reliable to get the necessary details from the person who actually did the work. Almost everyone enjoys talking about their work, so it's also a good way to get a nervous claimant to relax early in the hearing.

Having practiced disability law for 20 years I feel I have a pretty good working knowledge of how most jobs are performed. I can tell you more than you want to know about what a certified nurse assistant or fork lift operator does to earn their pay. Despite this knowledge, nearly every week I talk to a claimant who surprises me with some part of their work description.

Recently, for example, I took testimony from a woman whose last job was at a dating service. I focused on this job because she was clearly disabled from all of her other past work. She had worked in factories, in fast food restaurants and as a retail cashier at Wal-Mart. She hurt her back and now could not stand continuously for the majority of an eight hour day. All her other past work required substantial standing, so I wanted to know why she couldn't still do her job at the dating service.

My mistake was to assume she worked as a receptionist or file clerk at the dating service. I jumped to this conclusion because she had no other experience working in an office and only a high school education. I assumed she would only qualify for an entry level unskilled office job. I proceeded to ask her about whether she answered the telephone or did filing. Yes, she did both. Did she have to sit all day or could she get up and move around when she needed to? She said it was a small office and that she could get up anytime she liked as long as she could hear the phone ring. The heaviest thing she had to lift was a stack of papers weighing a few ounces. Did she have to use a computer very much? Not too much, just to enter the basic data on the clients.

By this point I had pretty much pegged this job as unskilled sedentary work that allowed alternate sitting and standing. It was perfect for a person with her sort of back injury. She should be able to do it without too many problems. I needed to be sure.

What else do you do beside answer the phone and take people's applications? Well, she had to set up appointments, you know the dates. Oh, I didn't know the service set up the dates. No, that's not what she did. Her primary job was to match people up, then call them and arranged the introductions. Oh, so do you use a computer to match applicants? Nope, she just flips through the pile of applications and finds people with similar interests who sort of match up, then calls them to set up introductions. How much training did she get to do this? None, really, its just common sense.

I was surprised, to say the least. This woman was not an office clerk at all. She was the dating service.

So why did she stop working there? The service moved out of St. Louis. Did her back pain have anything to do with her stopping the job? Not really. She hurt after working for eight hours but she liked the work and the pay was OK. She would have kept on if the company had not moved. I see.

I was amazed. My Vocational Expert was briefly amazed, then tried to hide her surprise. It was clear that this claimant was totally unqualified to do this job as described in official vocational guides. Yet she did it day after day and no one complained or even questioned her ability. I re-evaluated what I knew about dating services. I realized my knowledge, if you can call it that, is based entirely on advertizements for eHarmony and the like. The services want us to think matches are done in a highly sophisticated manner, maybe by computer or a specialized questionnaire, but back at the office, at least in some cases, the actual work gets done by an untrained office worker flipping through forms.

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