Veterans who do not have a total disability rating may nevertheless qualify for total disability benefits if they are found to be unemployable. Vocational experts can provide essential evidence to influence the Veterans Administration (VA) decision whether to grant a Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU) rating.
Veterans Disability Benefits
Veterans can obtain disability benefits if they have a current service-related health condition that affects the mind or body. A health condition is service-related if it was incurred while on active duty and was caused by military service. As a general rule, if an injury was not self-inflicted or caused by the person’s own misconduct, it will be regarded as service-related if it occurred during active duty.
Being wounded in action is an obvious example of a service-related injury. Less obvious examples include head injuries that result from an accident while riding in a military vehicle, back injuries that occur during training exercises, tripping over a power cord and damaging a knee joint, and inhaling chemical fumes that cause an illness.
In addition to disabilities that are caused by military service, a disability that is aggravated (made worse) by military service can be regarded as a service-related disability. Disabilities that were caused by military service but that do not become apparent until after discharge are also service-related. Chemical exposures that cause lung damage, for example, might not begin to produce symptoms until some time has passed.
Not all injuries or illnesses result in disabilities. An injury that heals and has no impact on life functions is not usually disabling. The Veterans Administration (VA) relies on medical examinations to determine whether a health condition is disabling.
The VA assigns a rating to disabilities. The rating describes the degree of a veteran’s current impairment caused by the health condition. Ratings are based on a set of schedules that, according to VA regulations, reflect “the average impairment in earning capacity in civil occupations resulting from disability.”
Most disability ratings are in the range of 10% to 30%. A total (100%) disability rating is assigned only when it would be “impossible for the average person to follow a substantially gainful occupation.” In other words, only an impairment that would prevent an ordinary person from doing any kind of work for wages is regarded as a total disability.
While a total disability claim results in the maximum disability benefit that the VA pays, the VA will pay the same benefit to a veteran who has a Total Disability Individual Unemployability rating. A veteran can receive a TDIU rating based on “unemployability” even if the veteran has a disability rating of less than 100%.
To be eligible for a TDIU rating, a veteran must usually have:
1. a single disability rated at 60% or higher, or
2. two or more disabilities that combine to create a disability rating of 70% or higher, provided that one of the disabilities is rated at 40% or higher.
The VA has complex rules that determine whether multiple disabilities should be counted as a single disability. For example, multiple disabilities that resulted from a single occurrence (such as a single accident) are counted as a single disability. When multiple disabilities are treated as a single disability, a disability rating of at least 60% will make a veteran eligible for a TDIU rating.
The VA assigns a TDIU rating to an eligible veteran if it determines that the veteran is unable to find or hold a “substantially gainful occupation” because of the veteran’s service-related disabilities. To be “substantially gainful,” the employment must provide an annual income above the poverty level. When employment income above the poverty threshold is earned in a family business or a sheltered workshop, the income is not regarded as “substantially gainful.”
The VA ratings board is required to consider a number of factors when it decides whether to award a TDIU rating. Those factors include:
1. the nature of the veteran’s disabilities;
2. the veteran’s education;
3. the veteran’s vocational skills;
4. the veteran’s employment history before becoming disabled;
5. the veteran’s employment history after becoming disabled; and
6. whether the veteran was fired from one or more jobs after becoming disabled and the reasons for the employment termination.
Vocational experts are able to analyze those factors and provide opinions as to whether “substantially gainful” jobs are available in the labor market that the veteran would be able to perform in light of those factors.
Vocational Expert Analysis
When the ratings board decides whether to award a TDIU rating, it often relies solely on medical records. Those records are important in determining the nature of a disability. However, doctors are not experts in the labor market.
Doctors understand the physical limitations caused by physical disabilities. Psychiatrists might appreciate the challenges to employment that a veteran with a mental disability might face. But medical professionals have no objective means of determining whether a veteran who is less than 100% disabled is employable.
Vocational experts conduct a comprehensive vocational evaluation. That evaluation includes a full review of the veteran’s employment history, a determination of whether the veteran can take advantage of work skills in light of the service-related disability, and an analysis of whether any other skills are transferrable to employment that would be substantially gainful.
While doctors typically assess specific disabilities for which they provide treatment, vocational experts consider how those disabilities combine to affect employability. Unlike doctors, vocational experts assess how physical and mental disabilities interact to affect a veteran’s ability to work. Vocational experts take into account the standards that employers impose, including their tolerance for employee absences, personality conflicts, and other issues that affect a disabled employee’s ability to maintain employment.
By identifying job performance concerns that directly relate to an employee’s disability, vocational experts go beyond a doctor’s theoretical belief that an employee might be able to work and ask whether employers in the labor market would actually allow the veteran to maintain employment in light of the veteran’s disability-related limitations. Vocational experts also consider whether jobs actually exist in the marketplace that a disabled veteran could perform. Vocational experts, therefore, provide key evidence that the VA will not otherwise consider when deciding whether to award a TDIU rating.