It’s common to encounter people with service dogs when you’re out and about town, such as at the grocery store, a sports arena, or a doctor’s office. These types of businesses are considered “places of public accommodation” under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and as a general rule, they must allow individuals with disabilities to bring their service animals into the business in all areas where customers are allowed. But what happens when an employee wants to bring their service animal—or their emotional support animal (ESA)—into the workplace? Must an employer allow that? The answer is one you’ve probably heard more than once from your employment lawyer: it depends.
Follow the Interactive Process
The employment-related provisions of the ADA are in a different section (Title I) than the public accommodation provisions, and Title I doesn’t specifically address either service animals or ESAs. So the familiar standards of reasonable accommodation and undue hardship apply, just as they would to any other accommodation request.
In considering an employee’s request to bring a service animal or ESA to the workplace, you should follow the familiar ADA interactive process (assuming your business doesn’t otherwise allow animals in the workplace.) A logical first step is to have employees document the basis for the request by identifying their medical condition(s), the resulting limitations, the type and breed of animal, and how the animal will assist them in performing their essential functions.
The regulations for ADA Titles II and III define “service animal” to include only dogs but also recognize that miniature horses may meet the criteria if they have been individually trained to perform work or a specific task for a disabled individual. (Arizona law expressly includes miniature horses as service animals.) Although the Title II and III regulations don’t apply to Title I, they are a useful reference point for evaluating whether an employee’s request involves a service animal. Don’t be surprised, though, if you receive requests involving monkeys, pigs, or even an alligator.
If the employee’s disability and/or need for accommodation isn’t obvious, then you may ask for medical documentation of the disability and functional limitations, as well as the purpose and effectiveness of the animal as an accommodation. You’ll want to ask what services the animal will provide, how it does so, and whether it has been specifically trained to provide those services. (If the employee’s healthcare provider wasn’t involved in recommending or acquiring the animal, consider asking for documentation from the animal’s trainer.)
You may also ask the employee to demonstrate the functions the animal performs or even to have a trial period with the animal in the workplace. The goal is to understand why the animal is needed and what it does for the employee.
Determining whether to allow an animal in your workplace also raises some practical questions you won’t encounter with a request for, say, an ergonomic office chair or intermittent time off for migraines. Depending on the type of animal and the type of workplace, the questions might include:
- Has your animal been trained to behave in a workplace without being disruptive?
- Has it ever acted in a violent or vicious manner toward another person?
- How would you like your colleagues to be notified about the presence of the animal? Do they need any training in how to interact with it?
- Is your office/work area sufficient to accommodate its presence?
- Will you need additional breaks for when it needs to relieve itself?
- Can you provide proof of any vaccinations required by local law?
Keep in mind also that concerns about other employees being fearful of or allergic to the animal generally won’t be sufficient to demonstrate undue hardship.
Don’t Tempt EEOC to Bark at Your Company
Accommodation requests involving service animals and ESAs aren’t common, but when they arise, they must be taken seriously. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently illustrated this by filing suit against Hobby Lobby, alleging that one of its stores unlawfully denied an employee’s request to bring her trained service dog to work to alleviate mental health symptoms (even though the store allowed customers’ service dogs) and then terminated her.
Keep your workplace off the EEOC’s radar by fully engaging in the interactive process for any accommodation request involving an animal.
Jill Chasson is a partner at Coppersmith Brockelman PLC in Phoenix, Arizona. Well-versed in the many federal and state laws that govern the workplace, Jill regularly works with businesses of all sizes to develop workplace policies and resolve difficult personnel issues. When disputes arise, she represents employers before administrative agencies, in arbitration proceedings, and in state and federal court. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.