Recent news stories have highlighted situations where airline passengers and other users of public accommodations have insisted on bringing a veritable menagerie of animals with them, on the basis that they provide emotional support and comfort. Businesses have struggled with their obligations under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act to allow customers to have animals accompany them, especially given the ability to easily obtain online “certification” for the animal with little or no demonstration of training or medical need.
Are the rules governing companion animals different in the workplace? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not directly addressed the use of emotional support animals in the workplace as a form of reasonable accommodation under Title I of the ADA. However, these questions would use the same analysis as any requested modification to workplace rules. First, the accommodation would have to provide an effective means to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. The employer is entitled to request medical information from the employee’s provider explaining how the presence of the animal accomplishes this function.
The employer can deny the accommodation request if it presents an undue hardship to the company. In making this determination, employers should distinguish between service animals and companion animals. Service animals have been defined by the Department of Justice under Title III as those that are trained to provide a specific function, such as a dog that can detect the early stages of an epileptic seizure. Employers may inquire about the animal’s training and its ability not to disrupt the workplace. Companion animals, on the other hand, do not perform specific functions but provide emotional support to their owners.
In most cases, employers would have an easier time denying employees’ requests to have companion animals accompany them to the workplace. The lack of training, combined with the fact that the animals do not perform any specific functions for the employee, make it easier to determine that the request presents an undue hardship. Employers are entitled to provide effective accommodations that are different than the ones requested by employees, and in some situations, they could devise ways to deal with an employee’s emotional support needs without allowing their companion animal into the workplace.
With trained service animals, employers have a much more difficult time justifying denial of the request. In the absence of evidence that the animal is causing a disruption, or that its presence violates a health code or other government regulation, the service animal should usually be allowed on the premises. Sometimes employers face dueling accommodation requests if another co-worker complains that the service animal is triggering allergic reactions. In these cases, the employer should work to separate the two employees’ work stations or devise other means to avoid this conflict.
The Department of Justice appears to be taking steps to restrict abuses of companion animal accommodation demands under Title III. As these restrictions come into effect, employers faced with similar employee accommodation requests can use this guidance as part of their decision-making process with regard to Title I compliance obligations. In the meantime, employers should continue to make individual decisions based on the employee’s needs and the impact of having the animal in the workplace.