Because animals that assist and support people for a variety of reasons are increasingly common, employers should be prepared to address employee requests to bring them into the workplace. Companies should take particular note of federal law that comes into play when disabled employees ask if a service animal may accompany them to work as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Service animals help people with disabilities by assisting them with activities they have difficulty performing on their own. But before you let all the dogs in, remember that the ADA defines a service animal specifically as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability” and adds that “the task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
Examples of disability-related “work” or “tasks” a service dog can do include:
- Alerting to sounds
- Detecting the onset of and offering protection during a seizure
- Retrieving an item
The ADA, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, requires business owners to make reasonable accommodations for employees who can show they have one of the following types of disabilities:
- A physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing or learning)
- A history of a disability (such as cancer that is in remission)
- Perceived physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if they do not have such an impairment)
Title I of the ADA requires that, when asked, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees so they may perform essential functions of their jobs unless it would create an undue hardship on the business. An employer may show that a service animal imposes an undue hardship if it:
- Is disruptive
- Poses a direct threat (e.g., a significant risk to health or safety)
- Is not properly cared for by its handler
Claiming undue hardship is a narrow exception under the law, however, and business owners should seek advice from legal counsel before doing so.
When a disabled employee asks to bring a dog to work and the disability is not obvious, the employer and employee should discuss the employee’s disability, how it affects the employee’s major life functions, how it impedes the employee in completing job duties and how the service animal might aid the employee. Employers who can provide an alternative to the requested service animal can still meet their ADA obligations, provided the option is as effective in helping the employee perform job functions and better meets the employer’s needs.
Make sure you don’t bark up the wrong tree, though. In almost every situation involving a service animal request, the employer is likely to determine that no alternative accommodations are as effective.
Trained service dogs accompanying disabled employees to their jobs has long been viewed as a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. In fact, several employers have been fined and successfully sued for not permitting service dogs in job interviews or at work. Monetary penalties for ADA violations alone can be doggone expensive – up to $75,000 for the first offense.
There is no such precedent for “comfort” or “emotional support” animals, which are untrained creatures whose mere presence provides comfort.
Some employers have thrown their employees a bone by offering less-disruptive alternatives to a comfort animal, such as allowing the employee to use a pet monitor or stuffed animal at work. There are no known cases to date in which a court has found an employer in violation of the ADA for denying the presence of an untrained comfort animal in the workplace where an alternative has been offered.
Generally speaking, employers should avoid requiring alternative accommodations to service animals that are trained to perform specific tasks but may provide other ways to accommodate employees who request animals accompany them to work for emotional support. In the event a service animal negatively affects other employees, employers may have to provide reasonable accommodations for them as well – for example, offering separate paths of travel, telecommuting options or alternate methods of meeting participation – such as by phone or video – even when an employee is in the office.
Following ADA-related best practices for service animals can unleash improved employee productivity that breeds bottom-line success.