The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many workplace cultures. One unexpected impact is the rise of requests to bring animals to work. According to the Washington Post, nearly 1 in 5 American households nationwide adopted a pet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees who were recently working from home may now request to bring their animals to work so that they are not separated from their newly adopted pets.
No Michigan or federal law requires employers to permit pets in the workplace, although some have adopted voluntary pet policies as a perk or retention tool. However, an employee may have a right to bring their service animals or emotional support animals to work under the ADA if a qualified individual with a disability makes the request.
The employment title of the ADA does not define service or emotional support animals, so courts look to other sources of laws to define these terms. According to those sources, a service animal is either a dog or a miniature horse that is trained to perform specific tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. On the other hand, an emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that does work, performs tasks, assists, and/or provides therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities. ESAs could include a broader array of animals, including dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, other rodents, fish, or turtles.
Employers should take the following steps if an employee requests the use of a service animal or ESA in the workplace:
- Assess whether the company is covered by the ADA.
- If covered, determine if the employee is qualified and disabled under the ADA.
- If the employee is disabled, engage in the ADA interactive process, which may include, requesting documentation, exploring alternative reasonable accommodations, and meeting with the animal to assess potential problems.
- Document the final decision, including any limitations or modifications, or explain the reasons why the request was denied.
It is very important that an employer does not rush to judgment or immediately assume that the employee’s request cannot be accommodated. Instead, take all requests seriously and analyze these requests on a case-by-case basis as you would with any other request for a reasonable accommodation in the workplace.
Contact the author Barbara Moore.