May 1, 2020

What Employers Should Know About Animals in the Workplace

by Mindi Wells, Wells Law LLC

When can an employee bring a service animal into the workplace, and are there distinctions among service animals, comfort animals, and emotional support animals? It is extremely important for business owners and HR professionals to know the answers to these questions under federal disability law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has specific disability accommodation requirements concerning certain types of animals in the workplace. Beyond compliance with federal disability law, we also want to provide you with some tips for making sure that your commercial space is set up to have animals in the workplace.

Service Animals, Emotional Support and Comfort Animals, and Workplace Accommodations

Service animals are distinct from emotional support animals and comfort animals. According to an ADA fact sheet, a service animal is defined specifically as a dog that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The ADA provides examples of the work or tasks that a service animal can perform, which can include but are not limited to some of the following:

  • Guiding a person who is blind;
  • Alerting a person who is deaf;
  • Pulling a person’s wheelchair;
  • Protecting a person who is having a seizure;
  • Reminding a person with a mental illness to take medication; and
  • Calming a person with PTSD who is having an anxiety attack.

Under Title I of the ADA, an employer may be required to allow a service animal into the workplace as a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability. Although Title I does not specifically say anything about service animals, an accommodation request for a service animal will usually need to be granted by the employer if the service animal’s function is connected to the employee’s disability, the service animal has been trained appropriately, the service animal will provide the employee with a greater ability to perform his or her job, and as long as the accommodation does not present an undue hardship to the business. At the same time, certain health and safety regulations may allow an employer to limit where a service animal goes within the workplace.

Emotional support animals, or comfort animals, are distinct from service animals under federal law. As the ADA fact sheet explains, “dogs [and other animals] whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

Employer Policies and Documentation Requests Concerning Animals At Work

If you have a “no animals” workplace policy, permitting a service animal as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA may require you to change the policy on a per-request basis. However, if an employee asks to bring an emotional support animal into the workplace as a reasonable accommodation, you likely will not need to modify your “no animal” policy. In general, employers are not required to treat requests for emotional support animals in the workplace the same way they would treat accommodation requests for service animals under the ADA.

The ADA limits the kinds of inquiries an employer can make concerning service animals and workplace disabilities. Most importantly, the ADA allows an employer to ask an employee for documentation concerning the disability and the employee’s functional limitations related to the disability. The employer also has a right to request documentation that the dog is a trained service animal.

At the same time, employers should know that there are confidentiality rules connected to the ADA, and employers are not permitted to provide information to other employees about the service animal or an employee’s disability accommodations.

How to Set Up a Workplace for a Service Animal

Employers need to ensure that their workplaces are set up for animals by doing the following:

  • Checking your building lease;
  • Reading your business insurance policies; and
  • Asking the employee about insurance coverage for injuries or damage caused by the animal.

In general, employers are not required to treat requests for emotional support animals in the workplace the same way they would treat accommodation requests for service animals under the ADA.