Recently, I saw a skiing dog. Oh, and it was wearing sunglasses too.
To be fair (to the dog), it was actually tucked neatly in a backpack while the owner was in line for the chairlift.
I didn’t actually see the dog skiing, but you get the picture. (Which I did capture!)
I thought I had seen everything but this was something new. And yet, it perfectly captured for me, a growing trend I’ve been hearing clients asking me about — “Everyone seems to be asking to bring their dogs everywhere. When do I have to allow a dog (or other emotional support animal) in my workplace?”
First, to be clear, I’m not talking about service animals — the type that do work or provide some benefit to those who are disabled. A trained service dog may, for example, be able to spot seizures for those with epilepsy.
In such an instance, the ADA requires that employers provide a “reasonable accommodation”; in most instances, the service animal can (and probably should) be accommodated in various ways.
(I wrote about this back in 2015 when a cab driver claimed his phobia of dogs allowed him to reject passengers with service animals. It didn’t.)
But what about so-called “emotional support” animals? Here, the law is a bit more vague.
As “AskJan” — a go-to website on job accommodations — noted, “there’s nothing in the ADA or its regulations that addresses emotional support dogs as workplace accommodations. There’s also nothing in written guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title I.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that employers should simply say no. Rather, you should probably find out first whether the employee has a disability and whether this request is actually a request for a “reasonable accommodation”. In such an instance, you may just want to consider the “interactive process” as you would for any other type of request.
For some employers, it may mean asking the employee (and his or her health care provider) to fill out a form to specify what the disability is and how an emotional support animal can help the employee do the job.
Recall that the requirement to provide a reasonable accommodation is that such an accommodation is needed so the employee can perform the essential functions of the job.
For example, if an employee’s permanent back injury requires the employee to take frequent breaks to allow him or her to perform the job, that’s the type of accommodation to be considered.
But bringing in an emotional support animal for a back injury may a “nice to have” but unless it is related to allowing the employee to perform the job, it may not be a “reasonable accommodation” nor may it be required under the ADA.
Employers can also ask other questions too; for example, is the animal trained sufficiently for the workplace? If not, then the animal might be an “undue hardship” in the workplace. It just may be too disruptive or, in a factory floor, just too unruly to manage.
And employers can still propose another accommodation that can assist the employee. For example, maybe the employee just needs a longer lunch break so he or she can go home for a bit.
The ADA requires employers to be flexible, but it does not require employers to bend its’ policies beyond recognition. Just because an employee wants to bring in an “emotional support” animal is not reason enough to allow it; more information is needed. Employers should take a reasoned approach and, if necessary, consult with your legal counsel.
For more on the subject, check out this excellent post by Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog as well.