Last month, EmployNews reported on new Department of Justice final regulations for public accommodations under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among the changes, businesses will only be required to allow trained dogs and miniature horses on their premises. This change resulted from complaints from businesses that customers and other visitors to their premises were claiming an entitlement under the ADA to have a wide variety of animals accompany them, including birds, pigs and monkeys.
In many cases, these demands were based on claims that the individual suffered from an anxiety or other mental disorder, and that the companion animals provided a calming effect. Often, these companion animals are untrained, and present sanitary, noise and other issues for businesses. The new DOJ rules limit the definition of service animals to actually trained dogs and horses.
Can employers use this guidance to refuse to allow employees to bring untrained animals into the work premises? In general, employers' accommodation obligations under Title I (Employment) of the ADA are higher than accommodations to the general public expected of commercial facilities and public accommodations. Any request by a disabled employee for the presence of a service or companion animal in the workplace would still need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
However, the new DOJ Title III rules provide significant back-up for employers concerned over the presence of untrained animals in public places. DOJ's blanket rejection of untrained companion animals as service animals indicates that they may not be an effective accommodation for a disabled employee, and may present an undue hardship for employers asked to accommodate their presence.
These requests are relatively unusual. An employer concerned about the presence of non-service animals in the workplace may consider alternatives, such as allowing the employee to work from home, or otherwise structuring the work environment to avoid triggering anxiety or other problems.