Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Do I Have to Allow Service Animals in the Workplace?

While service dogs have long been used by the blind and deaf, they are increasingly being used to treat other disabilities. For example, service dogs have been used for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Additionally, dogs are not the only animals used to help the disabled. Horses have been used to help the blind, and boa constrictors have been used to warn epileptics of oncoming seizures. As service animal use becomes more widespread, the odds of an employee requesting to use one in the workplace will probably increase. Does an employer have to allow an employee to use the service animal in the workplace?

The answer to this depends on the type of animal and the way in which it will be used. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make changes to the workplace that allow an employee with disabilities to work. Only if the changes that the employee requests would be too burdensome may the employer refuse to grant the employee’s request for an accommodation. 

This means that an employee’s request to use a service animal depends on how burdensome the animal would be to the workplace. If the animal would provide the disabled employee with a significant benefit, and would not be overly disruptive, then the employer would probably be required to allow the service animal in the workplace. If, however, the animal would be disruptive, bothering other employees and diminishing their productivity, then the employer probably would not have to permit the animal in the workplace.

Since the goal of the ADA is to provide disabled employees with the opportunity to work, and courts construe it broadly, in close cases courts generally rule in favor of the employee. Therefore, employers would need to have a good reason to ban a service animal from the workplace. The ADA requires places of public accommodation, like restaurants, movie theaters, and government buildings, to allow service dogs to accompany disabled individuals, so it seems likely that a court would require an employer to allow a disabled individual to use a service dog in the workplace. However, employers might have a better chance of not permitting more exotic service animals, like pigs or miniature horses, into the workplace. This is particularly true if the animal only provides emotional support, and does not help the employee perform a particular task. 

If an employee does use a service animal in the workplace, its care and supervision is the responsibility of the employee, not the employer. The employee must clean up after the animal and control its behavior. An employee’s failure to perform these tasks could provide reasons why the animal should not be permitted in the workplace. 

Ultimately, when faced with whether to allow a service animal in the workplace, employers might want to consider consulting an attorney. Spending a little bit up front to make sure that they are complying with the law could save an employer a lot more in the long run.