Employers today face many challenges surrounding employment and HR-related laws. With new legislation being passed seemingly every month at either the federal, state, or local level, it’s a lot for employers to keep up with.
One area that can be confusing, especially for smaller employers, involves service and emotional support animals in the workplace.
Often, employers aren’t sure how to handle employee requests to bring in service animals, the differences between service animals and emotional support animals, and what is required under the law.
SERVICE ANIMALS AND EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS AT WORK
The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides certain rights to individuals with service animals. Title III of the ADA (which is perhaps the most well-known part of the law involving service animals) requires public accommodations to allow service animals. However, owners of public accommodations aren’t required to allow emotional support animals.
This is because the ADA only recognizes services animals (defined as a dog, or sometimes a miniature horse), and not emotional support animals. You can view more information about this here.
However, Title III doesn’t apply to employers. That falls into Title I of the ADA, and according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Title I doesn’t require employers to automatically allow service animals in the workplace.
Also, this part of the ADA doesn’t define what a service animal is. What does this mean for employees and employers?
HOW SHOULD EMPLOYERS REACT TO SERVICE AND EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS?
Under the law, employers are required to provide employees with various forms of reasonable accommodations in order to perform their job. Under Title I of the ADA, services animals are considered to be a form of reasonable accommodation.
Additionally, an employer would also have to consider allowing an employee to bring in an emotional support or assistance animal.
It is best for an employee to do this in writing so that they have a record of the request, when it was made, and what information was provided to the employer.
The employer would then need to use its interactive process for reasonable accommodations to determine whether or not the service or emotional support animal would cause undue hardship for the employer.
In this process, the employer may request medical documentations of the employee’s disabilities to confirm that the individual does need a service animal to perform their job. An employer can also ask the employee why and how the service or emotional support animal would allow the employee to perform the duties of their position.
It’s important for employers to keep in mind that they are not permitted to disclose that an employee has a disability. If an employer ultimately allows the employee to bring in a service or emotional support animal, they cannot tell other employees the exact reasons why.
WHAT SHOULD EMPLOYERS KNOW ABOUT SERVICE ANIMAL REQUESTS?
Employers cannot deny an employee’s request to bring to work a service or emotional support animal by saying things like “dogs aren’t allowed in the office,” or “animals are too disruptive to bring to work.”
The only way an employer may deny a request would be if the animal would create undue hardship – significant expense or burden, given the size and resources of the employer.
These possible outcomes generally aren’t considered undue hardships, meaning an employer couldn’t reject the employee’s request if:
- Another employee is afraid of the service animal
- An employee is allergic to the animal
- The employee’s current workspace doesn’t accommodate a service animal
Something for employers to keep in mind is that a service animal under Title I isn’t defined as only a dog. This means that an employee could request to bring in other kinds of animals that would help the employee perform their job.
Lastly, employers should also be aware of any state and/or local laws that specifically address service or emotional support animals in the workplace. It is always critical for employers to remain compliant with laws at every level of the government.
EMPLOYERS MUST TREAT SERVICE AND EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS LIKE OTHER ACCOMMODATION REQUESTS
Employers cannot simply reject an employee’s request to bring in a service or emotional support animal. Instead, employers must follow their defined process for addressing reasonable accommodations to decide whether the animal is truly needed for the employee to perform their job.
Additionally, if an employee’s request for a service or emotional support animal is ultimately denied, the employer must offer other reasonable accommodations to help the employee with their disabilities.
Failing to follow reasonable accommodation procedures for service animal requests could result in employee lawsuits, fines, and potential penalties for an employer.
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