November 20, 2023

The ADA and Doggone Accommodations

Have you ever wondered how to balance an employee’s need to bring a service animal into the workplace as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, with a coworker’s fear or allergy? Which need wins?

Here are the highlights from two employers’ stories; one got it right, the other…not-so much, say the courts.

Half-empty. In a job interview, an applicant informed the manager that he needed his service dog to travel to and from work. He “did not need the dog at his feet during his shift and could be kept tied or crated in a safe location away from both customers and food preparation.” The manager said OK and hired him. But the request was subsequently denied by the employer’s Accommodation Request Committee. The Committee reportedly “felt that having animals in the restaurant would pose a health and safety risk [although they] did not identify any code, law or regulation that would prohibit granting [the] requested accommodation.” Oops. The EEOC subsequently announced the employer will pay $175K to settle the lawsuit they filed against the employer.

Half-full. A health care facility granted an employee’s request to bring a service dog into the workplace. On the first day of doing so, a patient had an allergic reaction to the dog. In addition, a coworker “obtained medical treatment after she suffered a severe allergic reaction from dog allergies,” went home and was absent the next day. The unit experienced a “burden” as it had to then shifted that employee’s work to coworkers. As a result, another coworker who was know to have dog allergies was scheduled to work on a different unit. The employer offered some options: to have the dog wear a shed-defender or be crated in the hospital and provide the employee with necessary breaks to be with the dog. The employee declined those options. The court subsequently found in the employer’s favor.

Lessons learned? If an employee needs an accommodation to perform one or more of the essential functions of the job, engage the employee in an interactive dialogue. If you cannot provide what the employee wants, consider some alternatives. If there are no alternatives, invite the employee to consider a transfer (usually this is an accommodation of last resort). If neither of those work and the employee’s condition is temporary, consider a leave of absence before discharging or inviting the employee to resign. As you are generating those options, talk to your company’s employment counsel.