Do employers have to allow support animals in the workplace?
An employer’s recent settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides an important lesson for any employer with an employee who has requested the use of a service or support animal at work. About a year ago, the EEOC sued CRST International alleging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for the company’s refusal to hire Leon Laferriere, a military veteran, after Laferriere had asked to bring an emotional support dog with him on the job to help with his post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome and mood disorder. The trucking company recently agreed to settle the claim for $47,500 and a commitment to train its managerial and recruiting staff on ADA compliance.
While “service animal” is referenced in the public accommodation provision of the ADA, it is not defined under ADA’s employment provisions. Moreover, the EEOC does not have a specific regulation or other guidance on service animals. That has caused confusion for employers. Many employers have not considered requests for service animals as something that falls under the ADA. However, an employer should treat a worker’s request to use a service or support animal for assistance with a disability just as it would any other ADA reasonable accommodation request. In addition, employers should train all managers and supervisors to recognize accommodation requests and what to do with a request once it is received.
This does not mean that all employers in all situations must permit employees to bring service or support animals to work. Indeed, the ADA does not require an employer to provide an accommodation if the accommodation would constitute an “undue hardship.” There may be jobs or workplaces where the use of an emotional support or service animals simply cannot be accommodated.
However, if an applicant or an employee requests to bring a support or service animal to work – or makes any request for reasonable accommodation – the employer should, at a minimum, take the following steps to engage in the interactive process and reach an appropriate conclusion:
Once an applicant or employee has made an accommodation request, the employer should respond immediately. Unnecessary delays in processing an accommodation request can in and of itself violate the ADA.
Gather information regarding the employee’s request. Talk to the employee about his/her condition and request. Employees with disabilities are familiar with their conditions and limitations and often know what accommodations will work best for them. Determine if medical documentation is necessary and/or appropriate.
Discuss accommodation alternatives with the employee, conduct research on accommodation alternatives and consider involving the employee’s medical provider. With the approval of the employee, some providers will brainstorm accommodation ideas with employers.
Document all communications about the request, the interactive process and the final determination.
Implement the accommodation, when appropriate to do so. Communicate with managers and supervisors to let them know about the accommodation, if necessary. Communications with coworkers should be limited, due to employee confidentiality considerations.
Monitor the effectiveness of the accommodation going forward and encourage ongoing communication with the employee regarding any issues that may arise.
Employers faced with a request to bring a service animal to work, or any request for reasonable accommodation, should consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel when in doubt about the appropriate course of action. For MEA members, the Hotline and a Member Legal Services attorney are available to provide this assistance.
About the Author
Amy McAndrew is MEA’s Director of Member Legal Services and has over twenty years of experience as a labor and employment attorney.