Animals In The Workplace

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Professionals

How Employers Should Handle Employee Requests to Bring Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals to Work

With an increase of stories in the media about emotional support animals (including a recent story about an airline’s refusal to allow a passenger to bring an emotional support peacock on a flight), some employers are wondering what to do if and when an employee makes a request to bring a service animal or emotional support animal to the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination by employers, government agencies, and public accommodations (such as hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters) against individuals with disabilities. Although the sections of the ADA relating to government agencies and public accommodations specifically address service animals, the section of the Act related to employers is silent on the issue.

Under Titles II and III of the ADA (relating to government agencies and public accommodations) a “service animal” is defined as a dog (or, in some cases, a miniature horse) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Examples of service animals include a dog that guides an individual who is blind, pulls an individual in a wheelchair, or alerts and protects a person who is having a seizure. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under Titles II and III of ADA.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the entity tasked with enforcing Title I of the ADA (related to employers), has not adopted the same definition of service animals. Per the EEOC, a service animal that may be a required accommodation in the employment context is one that “helps an individual with a disability overcome a workplace barrier.” Last year, the EEOC made its position clear that, in some circumstances, allowing an employee to bring an emotional support animal to work is a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of an employee diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder who was denied the use of a dog that helped the employee control his anxiety. The case is still pending in the Northern District of Iowa.

Accordingly, when confronted with a request by an employee to bring a service animal or emotional support animal to work, employers should engage in the same interactive process as required of any accommodation request. The employer should request enough information from the employee to learn: (1) why the animal is necessary (including medical documentation verifying the claimed disability and detailing why having an animal would help them); (2) what the animal does for the employee; (3) that the animal is trained; (4) that the animal will not disrupt the workplace; and (5) that the animal will be able to safely navigate the workplace.

Like any other accommodation request, a request to bring an animal to work should be granted unless it would cause an undue hardship. Animals that fundamentally alter the nature of business operations, cannot be controlled by their handler, bite someone, or are not housebroken would constitute an undue burden, and a request to bring them to work can be denied on that basis.

In short, requests to bring service animals or emotional support animals to work should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis and employers should remain open to engaging in an interactive process with employees to discuss whether the accommodation is reasonable and feasible.

For more information on service and emotional support animals in the workplace, please contact Elizabeth Pall at 312/840-7099 or epall@burkelaw.com.

330 North Wabash Avenue, Suite 2100
Chicago, Illinois 60611-3607
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