Service Animals in the Workplace

Last week, Michael W. Bowling shared a primer on the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the interactive process employers are expected to engage in with all employees who request an accommodation for a disability. As described in that advisory, the interactive process requires the participants to think creatively, and accommodations can take many different forms. Sometimes, the accommodation might even take the form of an employee bringing a service animal into the workplace.

When an employee requests to bring a service animal to work, what do you as the employer need to know? First, the request should be treated no differently than any other reasonable accommodation request, and employers should carefully consider the request. Like with all other requests, you can ask for additional information or documentation if the need for the service animal is not immediately clear, or to confirm the animal is trained to perform a service for the disabled employee without disruption to the workplace. Decisions about whether to grant the accommodation should be thoughtful, and avoid consideration based on stereotypes or fears.

Second, once the decision has been made to grant the request, there are a number of other considerations to keep in mind. The employee will maintain sole responsibility for the animal’s needs, but it may be that the employer needs to make modifications to other policies to ensure the employee is able to address those needs. The employer and the employee may also need to discuss other limitations involved with bringing in a service animal, such as whether there are any restricted areas where the dog cannot go, such as an isolation room at a hospital. While other employees in the workplace should know that the service animal is present to perform a task and is not a pet to be played with, it may be helpful to update policies or offer management training on how to address issues related to the presence of a service animal.

But wait, does the employer automatically have to grant an employee’s request to bring in a service dog? The answer is no, because like with other accommodation requests, the employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation, not necessarily their chosen one. Still, employers should take great care in evaluating the feasibility of the request, and make efforts to accommodate the animal where doing so presents the most reasonable solution and won’t cause an undue burden to the employer. Authority on when the presence of a service animal in the workplace creates an undue burden is limited, but an example could occur when the animal and its owner cannot feasibly be separated from the presence of another employee with a severe dog allergy. Just like with all accommodation requests though, a request to bring in a service animal should be addressed on a case-by-case basis, and carefully evaluated for feasibility and reasonableness.

If you have any questions regarding service animals as a reasonable accommodation, please contact Katie Campbell or another member of the Labor & Employment Practice Group.

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Associated People:

Katie Campbell

Practice Area:

Labor & Employment