November 06, 2019

Doggone it: When to Say “Neigh” to Service Animals at Work

News stories run the gamut from dogs to ducks to insects and, yes, miniature horses, all being used as emotional support animals   So, what are the rules in the workplace?  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) have guidance when it comes to employees’ and employers’ rights and obligations.

First, let’s consider the context. This issue generally arises when an employee requests to bring an animal into the workplace for comfort, support or service related to a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires a covered employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for a qualified individual with a disability.  A well-recognized example might be a seeing eye dog or one trained to help a hearing-impaired individual.

Next, we need to distinguish between a support and a service animal.

Service Animals: The DOJ has two publications that are still current. One was published in 2011 and recognized miniature horses, in addition to dogs as service animals.  The next guidance was published in 2015. It clarified that for ADA purposes, a service animal is defined as one “that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the [animal] must be directly related to the person’s disability.” The EEOC uses a similar definition. “Service animals are animals that are trained to perform tasks for individuals with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or performing other special tasks.” (See FN 24)

Emotional Support, Therapy, Comfort or Companion Animals: The DOJ explains,  “[b]ecause they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

And, how should an employer balance competing requests for accommodation, such as if one employee has a severe allergic reaction to or fear of dogs? The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which is referenced by the EEOC guidance has a publication with some tips and recommendations.

Clearly, these issues and definitions continue to evolve.  For more information, check out more “Publications and Articles Related to Service Animals” published by JAN here.