These days employers may find themselves dogged, more and more, by service animal questions. Can I bring my service animal to work? Can any dog become a service dog? Can I get fired for having a service dog?
The recent passage of SB2461—a new state law that imposes fines for knowingly misrepresenting an animal as a service animal—has brought service animals into the limelight. However, the increased attention has also spurred a great deal of confusion.
Since many employers operate in public spaces, like restaurants and stores, most are already aware that service animals are legally permitted in their place of business. What they might not know though is that the laws governing service animals in the workplace are, well, a bit hairier.
What is a service animal?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform specific tasks for an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
The work or task a service animal has been trained to do must be directly related to an individual’s disability. This can include guiding people who have vision impairments, alerting individuals who are deaf, or warning someone when they are about to have a seizure.
For the record, there is no official registry, certification, or form of identification for service animals. Service animals do not have to be professionally trained and can be trained by their owners.
Common questions about service animals in the workplace
Here are some of the common questions employers might have regarding service animals in the workplace and tips for addressing them.
Are employers required to allow service animals in the workplace?
No. However, employers are required to consider service animals as part of an employee’s request for reasonable accommodation under Title I of the ADA.
While Title III of the ADA requires most businesses to allow service animals in all areas of public access, these provisions don’t carry into the workplace. Title I, which specifically regulates employment, only requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Allowing a service animal to accompany an employee to work could constitute reasonable accommodation, provided that it does not cause undue hardship to the employer.
As with any request for accommodation under the ADA, employers should take requests seriously and engage in an interactive process to determine how the requested accommodation will assist the employee in performing the essential functions of the job.
Can employers request documentation to establish an employee’s accommodation request for a service animal?
Yes, if an employee’s disability is not obvious or the reason the service animal is needed is not clear.
This might normally include documentation from a healthcare provider to show that the employee has a covered disability. But employers can also request documentation or demonstration to show how the animal would assist the employee perform the job and/or is trained to behave in the workplace.
When requesting documentation, employers should be mindful to:
- Consider documentation from sources beyond healthcare professionals
- Avoid requiring employees to use an alternative or substitute medical treatment
Although this conflicts with Title II and III of the ADA, which strictly limits the questions one can ask when determining the legitimacy of a service animal, employers are within their rights to request this information when establishing an employee’s request for accommodation.
What are employers allowed to tell coworkers regarding an employee who brings a service animal to work?
The ADA has confidentiality requirements that prohibit employers from disclosing information about an individual’s disability and accommodations. That said, it should suffice to simply let staff know that a service animal will be accompanying an employee to work. If coworkers have questions or concerns, they should speak directly to management and take action on a case-by-case basis.
What if other employees are allergic to or afraid of animals?
Allergies and fearfulness are a common concern for employers when bringing a service animal into the workplace. However, employers should not deny an employee’s accommodation request simply because other employees are allergic to or fearful of animals. Instead, they can provide options to make the workplace conducive for everyone, such as:
- Having the employees work in different parts of the building or in private offices
- Scheduling the employees on different shifts
- Developing a plan to limit the overlap of the employees when using shared resources and spaces
- Scheduling regular cleaning of the office/building
- Using a portable air purifier at each workstation
- Add HEPA filters to the existing ventilation system
As a reminder, employers should refrain from requiring an employee with a disability to use another medical treatment other than one they preferred, in this case, a service animal.
What if other employees are overly excited about an animal in the workplace?
Overly excited employees can also be problematic when bringing a service animal into the workplace. They may be distracting and interfere with their work. Remind staff that the service animal is not an office pet and consider educating them on how to interact (or rather not interact) with a service animal.
Can an employee bring an emotional support animal to work?
Maybe. Since Title I of the ADA does not offer a definition of what a service animal is, employers may need to consider emotional support animals as part of an employee’s request for accommodation.
Emotional support animals, also known as comfort or therapy animals, provide companionship and therapeutic benefits to their owners. Though they typically do not have special training to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with disabilities like service animals, emotional support animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan.
No matter which way you slice it, the topic of service animals is a delicate subject. Nonetheless, employers should not outright deny an employee’s request to use a service animal or emotional support animal without first running through their normal accommodation process.
Is your staff equipped to deal with sensitive workplace topics? simplicityHR by ALTRES offers training programs for employees and managers to help create a more respectful work environment by giving them the tools to identify and prevent potential claims of discrimination.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should first consult their attorney, accountant or adviser before acting upon any information in this article.