Emotional support animals are everywhere these days. We see them on planes, restaurants, and other businesses. Places that were once off-limits to animals have “gone to the dogs.” What do you do, however, when your employee requests to bring their emotional support animal to work?
This blog endeavors to provide an overview of what to do when an employer receives such a request. Understanding the difference between “service animal” and emotional therapy animal is an important first step.
The Americans with Disability Act
The Americans with Disability Act (the “ADA”) defines a “service animal” as one that is individually trained to do work or perform a task for a person with a disability. Some common examples include the “seeing eye” dog or a dog that is trained to notice when a person is having a seizure. The ADA specifically limits service animals to two species–dogs and miniature horses (which are so darn cute, by the way).
Under the ADA, an animal only qualifies as a service animal if its work or task is directly related to the person’s disability. Focus on the task the service animal is trained to complete.
An employee requesting to bring a service animal to the workplace would trigger an employer’s responsibility to follow the regular ADA interactive process. Absent any safety, public or business-specific concerns, an employee who has a disability that requires a service animal would usually be deemed a reasonable request.
Emotional Support Animals
The ADA does not provide a definition for an “emotional support animal.” In most cases, emotional support animals are not trained to perform a specific task. Instead, these animals provide comfort or emotional support to their owner. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not limited to dogs and miniature horses. It is important to note that a doctor’s letter stating the person needs an emotion support dog does not turn the animal unto a service animal under the ADA.
What do you do when someone asks to bring in their emotional support animals? I would suggest you start the interactive process with the employee. Keeping in mind emotional support animals do not enjoy the same endorsement under the ADA as service animals., it is likely that may be other, less burdensome accommodations available. You may also request documentation as to what task the animal performs. If the animal poses an undue hardship or direct threat in the workplace, the employer will usually have wider latitude to deny the request.
Of course, as with any accommodation request, there are no clear cut answers. You should contact an attorney to guide you through the interactive process.
About the Author: Alejandro Pérez is a partner at Jaburg Wilk. Fully bilingual, Alejandro assists employers of all sizes with labor and employment law issues. In addition to representing clients in litigation, Alejandro provides advice and counsel on HR decisions; conducts sensitive workplace investigations; drafts and reviews employment policies, handbooks, and agreements; and trains workforces on a variety of aspects of employment law.
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