It seems like I’m seeing more and more people with service animals—particularly “comfort animals” meant to ease anxiety or similar problems. Delta Airlines has had such a problem with comfort animals causing issues on its planes that it recently announced it was tightening its restrictions. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. Does that mean you must allow disabled employees to bring their pets to work? Well, it depends.
Only individuals who meet the statutory definition of “disabled” are entitled to accommodations, so the first question is whether the employee truly has a disability. Clearly, a blind employee with a seeing-eye dog or a diabetic employee with a dog that detects low blood-sugar levels is disabled. An employee with general anxiety issues who would like the company of a comfort animal, however, may or may not meet the statutory definition of “disabled.” In such instances, you should first ask for medical proof that the employee’s condition is a disability.
If you are satisfied that the employee is covered under the ADA, the next step is to participate in the interactive process with her to seek an accommodation that is reasonable and doesn’t present an undue burden. You have the right to seek reasonable documentation that supports the employee’s request to bring a service animal to the workplace.
The employee probably isn’t required to provide a doctor’s note to support her need for the animal; a note from the person who trained the animal, for instance, may suffice. You may also require the employee to provide assurances that the animal is trained, has been vaccinated, and will behave appropriately.
If there’s another way to accommodate the employee’s disability, you may strictly apply your no-animals policy. However, if the service animal is the only viable option, the questions become whether the request is reasonable and whether allowing the service animal would present an undue burden. This is a fact-intensive inquiry.
Obviously a “comfort python” would create many more potential problems than a “comfort goldfish.” Allowing an untrained animal that creates safety hazards clearly wouldn’t be reasonable. An employee’s request for a dog at work would require a close inquiry. If the dog might bark, cause unpleasant odors, be disruptive, and hinder coworkers’ performance of their jobs, the accommodation likely wouldn’t be reasonable. My dog would drive everyone bananas.
One option is to allow the animal in the workplace on a trial basis and monitor the impact. Employers that allow an animal to accompany a disabled employee to work are often required to have a relief area available for the animal—another aspect of the accommodation. Frequently, the request for an animal simply can’t be accommodated. For instance, if a lease agreement strictly prohibits animals and the landlord won’t budge, the accommodation may present an undue hardship.
What if coworkers have disabilities stemming from an allergy to dogs? It’s your responsibility to find a way to accommodate both the employee with the dog and the employee with the potential allergic reaction. You can’t unreasonably favor one disability over another. Options may include changing workspaces, implementing different paths of travel, installing an air purifier, altering employee scheduling, or requiring the dog to be groomed.
Bottom line? Treat a request for a service/comfort animal the same way you would treat any other request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Confirm the disability, and then work with the employee to see if a solution can be found. On a final note, I can’t fathom any scenario in which it would be a reasonable accommodation to allow an employee to bring a cat to the workplace. Just kidding. Kind of.