Window to the Law: Service Animals in the Workplace

Chloe Hecht discusses how to handle a request from an employee to bring a service animal into the office.

Window to the Law: Service Animals in the Workplace: Transcript

This edition of Window to the Law features a very special guest – please meet my 13-year-old pug Iggy, who is here with me to talk about animals in the workplace and employer’s responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act when considering accommodation requests.

The Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA (one) prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual due to a disability and (two). One accommodation request is the ability to bring an animal to work, for such reasons as detecting seizures, soothing anxiety or PTSD symptoms, or aiding mobility.

The ADA requires an employer to follow several steps when considering an accommodation request.

  • First, confirm that the employee is qualified and disabled, as both terms are defined under the ADA.
    • A qualified employee must have the skills, experience, education, and other job-related requirements necessary for the position. He or she must also be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.
    • Disability is broadly construed under the ADA and includes a physical or mental impairment, a record of this kind of impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.
  • If the employee meets these requirements, then the employer must engage in an interactive process to consider the accommodation request.
    • The employer may ask for additional information from the employee, his or her medical provider, or the animal’s trainer to more fully understand why the employee needs the animal.
    • The employer may meet with the employee and animal in person to see how the animal helps the employee.
    • The employer should thoroughly investigate any potential issues caused by the animal’s presence. If the investigation reveals any such issues, then the employer should brainstorm an alternative reasonable accommodation instead of assuming the request is impossible.
    • Employers should make continual progress in reviewing the request, and document all steps taken during the investigation.

After completing the interactive process, the employer may decide to grant the request by allowing the animal to accompany the person at the workplace and making any other necessary accommodations, such as modifying the employee’s schedule to care for the animal; rearranging the office space for the animal and to address any co-workers’ allergies or fears; and educating co-workers about how to treat the animal.

On the other hand, the interactive process may reveal that the animal’s presence in the workplace would create an undue hardship for the employer. Undue hardship may mean that the request is cost prohibitive or the effects of the accommodation are too burdensome on the employer. Before denying the request, the employer should consider and propose alternative accommodations that may meet the employee’s needs. If no such alternatives exist or the employee rejects the alternative reasonable accommodations, the employer may be able to properly deny the request. Ultimately, undue hardship is decided on a case-by-case basis and depends on various factors including the employer’s size, financial resources, number of employees, and types of operations.

Recently, more employers are choosing to implement a pet friendly workplace. While this may eliminate the need for certain accommodation requests, it is unlikely to address all accommodation requests. For example, an employer may permit certain types of pets in the office, but a disabled employee may wish to bring in an animal not allowed. In that situation, the employer will need to engage in the interactive process I outlined when considering the employee’s accommodation request.

Finally, state law may provide broader protections to disabled employees or place more stringent requirements on employers, so be sure to keep up to date on your state’s laws and regulations in this area.

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