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“A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his.”

—John Grogan,

Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog

(William Morrow 2005)

 

There is no doubt that pets make our lives better. There have been numerous scientific studies demonstrating that pet ownership is beneficial to our mental and physical wellbeing. See How to Stay Healthy Around Pets, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/keeping-pets-and-people-healthy/how.html. For some, owning a pet is a necessity because they need the help of a service animal or emotional support animal. This post will discuss some of the questions we receive regarding bringing a service or emotional support animal into the workplace. As a starting point, it is important to understand the difference between service animals and emotional support animals.

Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which is the provision related to employment, service animals are not discussed. The ADA covers employers with fifteen (15) or more employees, including state and local governments. Florida has similar protections under the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”). Title II and Title III of the ADA recognize only dogs as service animals, and regulations issued by the Department of Justice also include miniature horses as service animals. To qualify as a service animal, the dog (or miniature horse) must be individually trained to do work or perform a task for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed must be directly related to the individual’s disability. For example, a service dog may be trained to alert an individual with diabetes when his blood sugar is low. Under the ADA, a service animal does not have to be professionally trained. Service animals must remain under the control of their handlers, and handlers must ensure the animal is housetrained.

Emotional support animals, by contrast, are not considered “service animals” under the ADA. Emotional support animals do not have special training to perform a task related to a disability, but they are undeniably important to their owners and often provide companionship and can help with depression, anxiety, and similar conditions. It may very well be that an individual has a disability and that the emotional support animal assists him with performing the essential functions of his position. For example, an employee with anxiety disorder may need the emotional support animal present to mitigate the disorder and help him perform his work.

Employees seeking to bring service animals or emotional support animals into the workplace should first approach the employer (often the human resources department) and make the reasonable accommodation request of bringing in the animal to assist with his or her disability. The employer should then engage in an interactive discussion with the employee to learn about the disability, how it impacts the employee’s major life activities, and how the disability impedes the employee from performing his duties. If the disability is not apparent and/or the reason for needing the animal is not clear, employers can request documentation related to the disability and/or request. It is important to note that the request and any other aspect of the process should be in writing. Under the ADA (and the FCRA), employers are obligated only to provide a reasonable accommodation and not the preferred accommodation if alternatives exist. The employer may thus provide another accommodation that would permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his position. Employers may deny a reasonable accommodation request if the request would create an undue hardship on the business, although this is a narrow exception.

Likely, after engaging in the interactive process, an employer will be obligated to permit an employee to bring a trained service animal into the workplace. The animal should be permitted in any areas where the employee is permitted, with limited possible exceptions (e.g., a sterile environment). There may, however, be other alternatives to allowing an employee to bring an emotional support animal into the workplace. It is critical that employers carefully consider requests from employees and communication is, as usual, vital.

The decision to seek a reasonable accommodation in the workplace or to respond to an employee’s request can be confusing. If you need assistance in ensuring that you do not end up in a “ruff” situation, please reach out to us.