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Service, Comfort Animals at Work Put Employers in Quandary

The COVID-19 pandemic brought mental health issues to the fore for many Americans, and one of the byproducts was more people seeking out service dogs to help them manage physical disabilities and psychological issues.

And as more workers are returning to the office environment, the question arises whether they should be allowed to bring their service dogs to work. While many workplaces have become “pet-friendly,” most are not and service animals put those employers in a quandary in light of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you are in the camp that is not keen on allowing animals in the workplace, you may have no choice if one of your staff asks to bring in their service animal as an accommodation for a disability. Under the ADA, you may be required to allow a worker to bring in their service dog as a “reasonable accommodation.”

ADA definition

Titles II and III of the ADA define a service animal as:

“Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.”

In addition to dogs, miniature horses meeting certain criteria, including size and weight limitations, have also been determined to be service animals.

That said, under the employment provisions of the ADA, found in Title I, there is no definition of service animal and no specific guidelines for employers to follow when an employee asks to bring such an animal to work.

Once a worker asks to bring in a service animal, you must engage in an interactive process during which you should evaluate whether:

  • The service animal will help them perform their job better,
  • Allowing the animal would cause an “undue hardship” on the company, or
  • The animal would pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others in the workplace.

Both the employee and the employer must participate in the interactive process in good faith to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and to review whether the requested accommodation could reasonably be implemented to overcome the limitation.

EEOC takes action

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has already set precedent in taking action against employers who refused accommodation requests to bring their service dogs to work.

The agency sued Hobby Lobby in June 2022, alleging that the retail giant violated the ADA when it refused such a request from one of its employees.

A representative from Hobby Lobby’s human resources department said that “the service dog would be a safety hazard because someone could be allergic to the dog, someone might trip over the dog, or the dog might break something,” the complaint alleges.

What you can do

If you do not have a no-pets-at-work policy and allow other employees to bring pets to work, then you should allow workers with disabilities to bring in their service or comfort animals.

If you have a no-pets policy, you’ll need to enter the interactive process with the requesting employee. When evaluating a request for accommodation for a service animal based on a disability, you are not required to consider an accommodation of other types of animals or requests from workers who are not claiming a disability.

You only need to consider requests to bring a service animal or emotional support or therapy animal that enables an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job.

You should ensure that you have policies and procedures for handling service animal-related disability accommodation requests.

If you do get a request for accommodation, you should avoid requiring certification of the animal as a service animal. Under federal law and in most states, employees are not required to produce a certification that the animal has been trained through a particular program to be deemed a service animal.

You are also limited in what you can ask about the employee’s disability and medical condition.

You may also consider allowing the employee to work from home if it is possible in their position as a reasonable accommodation.

For more helpful business tips delivered to your in-box, email Shannon@vma.bz and as to be added to our monthly eNewsletter.

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