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Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace: A Practical Approach, Volume 12, Issue 04

Consultants' Corner: Volume 12, Issue 04

From the desk of Linda Carter Batiste, J.D., Director of Services and Publications

You’ve heard of service animals for people with disabilities and you know there are specific rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding service animals in public places like stores, restaurants, and hotels. But recently an employee disclosed that she has an anxiety disorder and she asked if she could bring her emotional support dog to work. You’re not sure whether this is something you have to consider so you do some research.

First, you look up whether an emotional support dog is classified as a service animal under the ADA. You find out it’s not. However, you realized that the only definition of service animal is under Titles II and III of the ADA, which apply to state and local government services, programs, and activities and public accommodations respectively. Under Title I, the employment provisions, you can’t find a definition of service animal.

Next you research reasonable accommodation under Title I to see if there is any mention of allowing an employee to bring an emotional support dog to work. Again, you can’t find anything that answers your question.

Finally, you decide to contact JAN to see if we can shed any light on this issue.

As a starting point, we can tell you that we had the same problem you did — there’s nothing in the ADA or its regulations that addresses emotional support dogs as workplace accommodations. There’s also nothing in written guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title I.

So what should you do? If you want to err on the side of caution, here’s a practical approach you can take: You can treat this request just like any other accommodation request. And how do you do that? Here are some practical steps for processing a request to bring an emotional support animal into the workplace:

  1. Asking to bring an emotional support animal into the workplace as an accommodation falls under the category of modifying a workplace policy, assuming you have a no-animals policy. So you might want to first look at whether you have such a policy and, if so, can it be modified. The answer typically depends on the employee’s job and the work environment — for instance, there could be some jobs or work environments in which it would be difficult to accommodate someone having a dog with them, regardless of whether it’s a service animal or an emotional support animal. For example, animals might be prohibited in an emergency room (ER) so an ER nurse probably couldn’t have an animal with her while working in the ER.
  2. Assuming it’s possible to modify the no-animal policy, next you can ask for medical documentation if the disability and need for accommodation are not obvious or already verified. This step is optional, but employers are allowed to request medical documentation when an employee requests an accommodation. Under the ADA, employers only have to consider accommodations that are needed because of a disability.
  3. Once the need for accommodation is established, the next step is to talk with the employee about whether the emotional support animal is trained to be in a work environment and will be under the employee’s control at all times. Under the ADA, employers do not have to provide any accommodations that pose an undue hardship. One factor in determining undue hardship is whether the accommodation will be unduly disruptive to other employees or to the ability to conduct business.
  4. Finally, possibly the best way to determine whether to allow the employee to bring an emotional support animal to work is to allow it on a trial basis and see if it works. Employers who do this often make a written agreement with the employee that there will be a trial period, how long it will last, and what factors might end the trial period early. For example, if the emotional support dog shows any sign of aggression or if the employee cannot keep the animal quiet or under control, the employer will immediately end the trial period and deny the request.

The use of animals to help overcome disability-related symptoms seems to be a growing trend, and it’s not just dogs; it’s all types of animals. It’s likely we’ll be hearing more and more about this topic and maybe we’ll get clarification in the future, but for now we hope our practical approach is helpful.

service dog