Over 12 million American households adopted a pet during the pandemic. With the increase in pet ownership, more employees may be asking to bring their new companions with them upon return to the office. Do employers have to allow employees to bring their dog to work?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities, meaning changes that allow the employee to perform essential functions of the job without imposing undue hardship on the employer. When an employee requests such an accommodation regarding an animal, the employer must be mindful of the distinction between service animal and emotional support animal.
A service animal is defined by the ADA as an animal that’s primary function is to perform specific tasks for an individual with a disability that they would otherwise not be able to perform independently. They are also trained to recognize the individual’s need for assistance and respond appropriately. As such, service animals are generally considered a reasonable accommodation and are protected by the ADA.
By contrast, emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific acts directly related to a disability. Instead, the pet's owner simply derives a sense of well-being, safety, or calm from their pet's companionship and physical presence. Emotional support animals do not qualify as service animals and do not receive the protections of the ADA.
Because the distinction between a service animal and an emotional support animal may not be clear, employers may consider treating requests for an emotional support animal as an accommodation covered under the ADA. If the employer has a no-pets policy, the first step is to consider whether the employee’s job and work environment allow the policy to be modified. It may be impractical to allow an ER nurse to have a dog in the operating room, but a dog in a private office poses less of a challenge.
If company policy can be modified, the employer may request medical documentation if the disability and need for the accommodation are not obvious or already verified. If an accommodation is needed, the employer should ask if the emotional support animal is trained to be in a work environment and will be under the employee’s control. Remember, employers do not have to provide any accommodations that pose an undue hardship, including whether it will be unduly disruptive to other employees or to the ability to conduct business.
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