21 November 2019

Service And Support Animals in the Workplace: What You Need to Know

We often receive questions from clients about requests that both employees and customers (or patients) make to bring emotional support or service animals into the workplace.  Here’s a quick primer on what employers need to know about service and emotional support animals:

  • What is the difference? A service animal is a dog (or sometimes a miniature horse) that is specifically trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability, most often by performing a function that the disabled person is not able to perform.  Think of a guide dog.  An emotional support animal (or a therapy/comfort animal) does not have the same specialized training as a service animal.  As the name suggests, the animal is a companion for an individual that requires emotional support.
  • Customer requests. There is a difference between a business’s obligations to allow customers to use service animals and emotional support animals.  Under the law, generally speaking, businesses are not required to allow emotional support animals onto their premises.  However, businesses that are considered places of “public accommodation” – such as restaurants, hospitals, and movie theaters – are required to allow a service animal to accompany a customer anywhere they go.  When an individual seeks to bring an animal into a place of public accommodation, employers can only ask two questions to determine whether the animal is, in fact, a service animal: (1) is the animal a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the animal been trained to perform.   The business is not allowed to ask about the person’s disability or require any documentation.
  • Employee requests.  Unlike customers, employees have a greater ability to bring both service and emotional support animals to work.  Employers must treat a request to bring any animal to work, whether a service animal or emotional support animal, like any other requests for an accommodation by an employee under the Americans’ With Disabilities Act (ADA).  This means employers must look at each request individually, engage the employee in the “interactive process,” and determine whether the request to bring an animal is a “reasonable” accommodation under the ADA.  In doing so, the employer ask questions about the animals and the employee’s need for accommodation and obtain medical documentation if necessary.
  • What about the other employees? If bringing an animal to work is a reasonable accommodation for a particular employee, it is not unusual for other employees to be curious or unhappy about the accommodation.  They may have a fear of dogs, allergies, or just find it unusual that a dog is allowed at work.  They may also ask questions.  Employers should be prepared to address potential concerns by taking steps to ensure everyone can work in the environment with an animal.  This might include moving employees with fears or allergies to other parts of the building or installing air filters.  Employer should also be careful not to disclose any information about the individual’s disability or why the employee needs the animal as an accommodation.

Requests to bring an animal into a workplace, particularly by employees, can be nuanced and create many questions and legal issues.  Contact your attorney, or a member of Miller Johnson’s Labor and Employment Group, if you have any questions.