Service Dogs in the Workplace
Ever feel like your office going to the dogs?
Later this week, hundreds of workplaces will indeed be “going to the dogs” as businesses and employers across the country celebrate “Take Your Dog To Work Day” on Friday, June 26.
And while this fun “holiday” may simply represent the opportunity for large numbers of dog-loving employees and employers to finally bring Fido in for a visit, the question of whether to allow dogs in the workplace can actually be a legal one for employers when it comes to service animals.
What qualifies an animal as a service animal?
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the section governing public access) defines “service animals” as any “dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability” that directly relates to the individual’s disability. The ADA does not recognize other species of animals as service animals.
There is, however, no specific definition of service animal under Title I. This means employers need to seriously consider employee requests to bring in animals that do not necessarily meet the definition outlined in Title III, rather than risk the costs of noncompliance. (Civil penalties for ADA violations can be as high as $75,000 for a first-time offense.)
Service dogs as reasonable accommodation
Although Title III requires a public accommodation to modify policies and procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability, there are no specific regulations governing the use of service dogs in the workplace or for purposes of employment. The use of a service animal in the workplace is, instead, seen as a form of reasonable accommodation.
The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified employees with disabilities, except when the accommodation would cause the employer undue hardship. As defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a reasonable accommodation is “any change or adjustment to a job or work environment that permits a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the job application process, perform essential functions of a job, or enjoy benefits and privileges of employment equal to those by employees without disabilities.” According to the EEOC, if an employee’s service dog has been specifically trained to help with his or her medical needs, he or she has the right to request the employer permit the use of the service dog as a reasonable accommodation.
Employers do have the right to ask for appropriate documentation establishing the need for a service animal, but should be aware that documentation isn’t necessarily required to come from a doctor or other medical professional. In the case of a service animal, documentation might be provided by the organization that trained the animal, or another source.
Addressing objections to service animals in the workplace
A main concern many employers have about allowing service animals in the workplace is the effect the animal may have on employees who are allergic to dogs. The Job Assistance Network, a service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, US Department of Labor, outlines these options for employers who are dealing with employees who are allergic to a coworker’s service animal:
- Allow the employees to work in different areas of the building.
- Establish different paths of travel for each employee.
- Use a portable air purifier at each workstation.
- Allow flexible scheduling so the employees do not work at the same time.
- Allow one of the employees to work at home or to move to another location.
- Develop a plan between the employees so they are not using common areas - such as the break room and restroom - at the same time.
- Ask the employee who uses the service animal if (s)he is able to temporarily use other accommodations to replace the functions performed by the service animal for meetings attended by both employees.
- Ask the employee who uses a service animal if (s)he is willing to use dander care products on the animal regularly.
- Have the work area - including carpets, cubicle walls, and window treatments - cleaned, dusted, and vacuumed regularly.
Employers must tread carefully when claiming that the use of a service animal would present an undue hardship on the organization. Although the ADA allows employers the option to choose among several effective options when providing accommodations, it also stipulates that an employer cannot require an employee to use alternative medical treatments or procedures.
Additional accommodations for employees with service animals
Although employees with service dogs are solely responsible for the care of their service animal, there are a number of additional accommodations employers may want to consider making, including:
- Allowing the employee to take additional breaks and providing designated to care for their service dog’s daily needs (i.e. feeding the animal and allowing it to relieve itself).
- Conducting or arranging disability awareness training to instruct other employees about the use of service dogs and how to act/interact with service animals.
- Providing the employee with an enclosed or private workstation to minimize distractions.
Although many people would love to bring their dogs to work to act as companions and liven up their workday, for employees with service animals, bringing their dog to work is both a necessity and a right. Employers grappling with the question of whether or not to allow an employee to bring their service dog to the workplace should be careful to err on the side of caution and consult with a labor law and HR compliance expert.