Supporting Workers and Their Pets Through the COVID-19 Crisis

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP February 17, 2021
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woman working with cat on desk

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many employers to shift their operations to remote work, which may have changed employees' routines with their pets. As case numbers drop and some employers consider reopening their workplaces, employees may have anxiety about leaving their animal companions at home.

A silver lining of the pandemic for many workers is having the opportunity to spend more time with their pets, said Jonathan A. Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City.

Employees and their pets have likely settled into routines that include more playtime, walks and other interactions, as well as different feeding schedules than in pre-pandemic times.

Here are some pet-focused options for employers to help ease workers' transition back to the office.

Welcoming Pets at Work

As businesses reopen, employers may consider allowing employees to bring their pets to the worksite—either temporarily or permanently. Although pet-friendly policies won't work for every business, some may benefit from adding the perk.

Employers that want to allow pets in the office will need to carefully craft their policies.

"There are a lot of factors to consider," Segal said. Do any employees have pet allergies? What protocols will be put in place to keep the office clean? How will the employer handle potential distractions, damage, messes and noises that pets may create?

Nestlé Purina Petcare offers an employer toolkit for making offices pet-friendly. The toolkit includes a checklist, an authorization form, etiquette guidelines and office signs. According to Purina's toolkit, employers should establish what types of pets can be brought to the office. Some employers may only allow cats and dogs, while others may allow birds, fish and more. Employers can designate pet-free zones in the policy and address concerns, such as accommodating employees with allergies and different comfort levels about having pets in the workplace.

"The employer should set clear ground rules about when and where the animal will be during the workday and how it will be cared for by the employee, with as little disruption to the office as possible," said Adam Sencenbaugh, an attorney with Haynes and Boone in Austin, Texas, and San Antonio. "The employer should consider ensuring that the animals are housebroken and that the employee who brings the animal be responsible for supervising the animal during the workday." 

Developing Routines       

For employees who ultimately leave their pets at home, employers may consider providing resources to help them make the transition back to the traditional worksite. 

Setting routines is important, Segal said, noting that there are steps employees can take to establish a workday routine before returning to the office.

"A gentle transition will help make this change in routine as stress-free as possible," according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Schedule waking up, feeding, and walking as you would for your expected workday routine. Introduce a consistent departure schedule that builds on that routine."

The Northeast Animal Hospital suggests leaving the house more frequently during the workday to help animals adjust. "If your dog normally spent their time in a crate or behind a pet gate while you were away at work, you may want to consider having them take their naps there again, to get used to their not being by your side all day."

Pet owners may want to consult a veterinarian prior to returning to work if they have specific concerns about their pets' behavior or health.

Reasonable Accommodations

Employers that don't have a broad pet-friendly policy should note that they may still need to consider allowing pets in the office as a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that service animals be allowed in all areas of public access. Title I—which covers employment—requires employers to make reasonable accommodations only for employees with disabilities. So employers should engage in an interactive dialogue with employees to determine the appropriate accommodation.

Employers should know that emotional support animals and service animals are not the same, said Eric Meyer, an attorney with FisherBroyles in Philadelphia. Although neither is defined under Title I of the ADA, other sections define "service animal" but not "emotional support animal."

The ADA generally requires that service animals be allowed onto an employer's property. "These are different than comfort or emotional support animals, because service animals must be trained to take a specific action to assist a person with a disability," Sencenbaugh said. "The classic example is the service dog that is trained to alert a person with diabetes when their blood sugar is low."

An emotional support animal generally provides comfort and companionship.

"Notwithstanding the blurred lines between emotional support animals and service animals, a company would have to permit an employee with a disability to bring either into the workplace if doing so would enable that individual to perform the essential functions of her or his job without creating an undue hardship for the business," Meyer explained.  

For example, even if an employer had a "no pet" policy in the workplace, the employer should still consider allowing someone with post-traumatic stress disorder to bring an emotional support animal into the workplace. At the very least, he said, the employer should explore other possible accommodations that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.

Perhaps the employee will benefit from continuing to work from home. "Remote work with the emotional support animal at home may be a good compromise," Meyer noted. 

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