What would you do if your employee asked you to let him/her bring his/her dog to work? You might be saying to yourself, “That’s it, that crazy EmpLAWyerologist lady has really lost it now. I mean what kind of question is that? I’d tell the employee to take the dog home and never bring it back”. You might even have a no-animals-at work policy. Or you might not have a policy, because you don’t see how this is even a question. “Of course employees can’t bring their pets to work” you may be thinking. Are you sure about that? How many of you want to scream at me, “Of course I’m sure! What’s the matter with you? Have you finally run out of things to write about on your blog?” No, I have not run out of things to write about, and yes, I may be crazy, but not because I asked about pets in your workplace. The truth is there are times you may have to allow an employee to bring their animal to work. Before you fully conclude that I am off my rocker (and again, you may be right, but not for that reason) hear me out. Read on to learn why you might have to make friends with living creatures that are neither human nor plant…
So, you’re still probably wondering, why is this an issue? I mean Bring Your Child to Work Day is one thing — and even that’s only one day a year.–but the dog? Really? OK, I hear you. But let me ask you something you may not have considered: What if the dog — or other animal– is a service animal? Suppose your employee needs that dog or other animal either to perform essential job functions or otherwise be able to engage in other activities that affect his/her ability to perform essential job functions? Do you see where I’m going now? You may be required under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the ADA Amendments Act, because that furry/hairy creature might be a reasonable accommodation.
Now, to be fair, Title I of the ADA (which deals with disabilities and employment issues) does not define “service animal”, nor does it provide any guidance on service animals at work. Other parts of the ADA, which do not deal with employment, do. So what should you do? The short answer: Treat it like any other accommodation request. How do you do that? As soon as you get the request, you engage in the interactive process. That means you must, as Linda Richman (aka Mike Myers) might say, “Talk amongst yourselves, discuss”.
You may first ask your employee why s/he wants to bring the dog. So, for example, an employee with visual impairments who uses a service dog to get around, might have a valid reasonable accommodation request. Suppose that is the answer you get to your question. Are you automatically required to allow the dog? Not necessarily. You can ask about the employee’s limitations as they affect his/her ability to perform essential job functions. You can ask or look into whether the dog is the only way to accommodate the limitations in question. If there are other, equally effective ways of accommodating the issues in question, you can offer an alternative accommodation. If your employee refuses that accommodation, you would not have to allow the dog and you would have discharged your obligations under the ADA/ADAAA. At the same time though, the EEOC says that employers should, when possible give preference to the employee’s request to use a service animal at work.
As with any accommodation request, you can ask for documentation to verify that bringing the animal to work is a reasonable accommodation for a disability. With service animals however, it’s not likely that a doctor or other health care provider could provide the necessary documentation. So how would you get documentation then? You could start with requesting documentation from whoever trained the service animal. The point is to find out why the service animal is needed and what it does for your employee. You might still be concerned. What if the animal is disruptive or even destructive? After all, animals were not born to sit in an office all day. You can require that a service animal be trained to be and function appropriately in a workplace. The employee may need to train the animal to behave properly. In that case you can also require the employee to document — or even demonstrate that the animal will not be disruptive or destructive.
OK, this is all well and good, but who is going to take care of the animal while it’s at your workplace and your employee is (hopefully) working? The employee would be responsible for making sure the animal is clean, free of parasites, is taken to a proper place at proper intervals to relieve itself and, again, is properly trained. You might still have to provide accommodations that enable the employee to do so, however. For example, if your employee has specific break times, you may need to adjust them so that s/he can take the animal out to relieve itself or take it for a brief walk. (Generally speaking there are places outside where an animal can relieve itself, so that should not present an insurmountable problem.) You might, during the interactive process, need to discuss if any other accommodations are necessary for the animal’s care.
What about other employees? What if the means needed to accommodate the animal are onerous? What if the employee wants to train a service animal at work? As you can see, we’ve maybe only begun to scratch to surface on this topic, so next week we’ll look at questions you might want to ask, possible accommodations, care of the service animal, and dealing with co-worker concerns, so stay tuned!
Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
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