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Room may have to be made for comfort and service animals in the workplace
Most people are familiar with service animals—typically dogs—that assist people with disabilities at home and at work. But what about comfort animals such as pigs, snakes, birds or cats? Are you prepared to welcome them into the workplace?
Employers should be meticulous about setting ground rules for employees who have service or comfort animals and set out consequences in the event those rules are broken. Employers also should consider possible problems with the accommodation and see if they can be addressed before granting the request.
Service animals are not necessarily considered pets. They work to improve the negative effects of the person's disability, said Jonathan Mook, an attorney with DiMuroGinsberg in Alexandria, Va.
Versatile Dogs, Other Animals
Employers may be most familiar with guide dogs as service animals for employees with visual or hearing impairments, noted Emily Hobbs-Wright, an attorney with Holland & Hart in Denver.
There also are seizure response dogs trained to predict oncoming seizures, to warn the person to get to a safe place and to go for help, she noted. Diabetic alert dogs are trained to sense when a person's blood sugar is too high or too low and can prompt the person to take action to stabilize his or her blood sugar levels.
Emotional support dogs can help individuals who have panic attacks, autism or other mental disorders. "Other dogs are trained to pick up or fetch items for those in wheelchairs," she said.
The employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do not limit the types of animals that an employee may need in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation, Mook noted.
"This is unlike Title III of the ADA involving public accommodations, where the Department of Justice regulations specifically limit the type of service animals that a business open to the public must accommodate to dogs and miniature horses—no monkeys," he said.
Employers do not have to let employees with disabilities bring their service animals to work, Hobbs-Wright noted. The employee must make a request and the employer use its interactive process for reasonable accommodation to determine if allowing the service animal in the workplace may be a reasonable accommodation that does not result in undue hardship.
"The employer and the employee should discuss how to handle educating co-workers and customers about the service animal," she said.
The employer may request medical documentation of hidden disabilities, such as psychiatric impairments, to verify that the person needs a service animal. HR also can ask for an explanation of why and how the service animal enables the employee to perform essential job functions. Once the medical documentation is received, the employer should evaluate if the request for an animal in the workplace is reasonable and will effectively enable the employee to do the job while not posing an undue burden, said Patti Perez, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in San Diego.
There are no specific certification requirements for a service or comfort animal under the ADA, Mook noted.
A word of caution: Employers generally are not permitted to disclose to others that an employee has a disability. "Accordingly, an employer should only state that the employee has an animal accompanying the employee to work and not to interact with the animal," said Debra Friedman, an attorney with Cozen O'Connor in Philadelphia. The employee with the service or comfort animal may choose to tell others the purpose of the animal but is not required to do so.
If another employee is allergic to the service or emotional support animal, the employer must try to accommodate the employee with allergies as well. "An employer generally cannot refuse to allow a service animal or emotional support dog into the workplace because of employee allergies," she said.
The employer might consider moving the employee who uses the service animal to a different location where the problem with allergies would not arise, Mook noted.
Employers may also draft a written agreement with the employee in which the employee will bear the costs of any cleaning or repairs that may be needed, he added.
What if another employee is extremely afraid of the service animal? Accommodations for both employees' needs should be considered.
Also, before the accommodation is implemented, check with other entities, such as a landlord and surrounding business establishments, to ensure there isn't an unforeseen problem in granting the accommodation, Perez said.
If the animal is not truly enabling the employee to perform the job, the animal need not be allowed, said Peter Petesch, an attorney with Littler in Washington, D.C. "The same might apply if the animal is actually distracting the employee from performing his or her job," he said. "There have been cases where courts denied accommodation claims by employees seeking to bring untrained puppies to work, for example."
If the service animal is denied as an accommodation, other reasonable accommodations must be considered.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]
Perez noted that employers should set criteria on how the animal is expected to interact at the workplace by establishing rules about:
The ground rules should be set forth in writing, Mook said. "So if a problem arises in the future, the employer can clearly document its attempt to accommodate the person's service or comfort animal," he noted.
"The more these rules are agreed upon and established up front, the greater the likelihood that the accommodation will work," Perez said.
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