Should Employers Allow Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace?

Copyright 2019

Many people have long recognized and cherished the emotional support available from their pets. That's what pets are for, largely, unless they serve double duty such as providing physical security or herding sheep. There are also bona fide service animals, most commonly in the form of Seeing Eye dogs.

An emerging category of service animal is a psychiatric service dog. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the distinction between a service dog and an emotional support animal (ESA), is in the training. The AKC defines a service dog as one that "has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person's disability," as opposed to tasks that are instinctive to the dog even without training. And true psychiatric service dogs are trained "to detect the beginning of psychiatric episodes and help ease their effects."

This isn't to say that ESAs can't be helpful. They can fill critical roles in the lives of disabled people, and that's the crux of the matter for employers.

ADA Stance

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides specific answers on the issue of service animals, but only with respect to public accommodations and the provision of services and programs by government agencies. Service animals aren't defined in the context of private employers. That means you're on your own in assessing whether an animal can provide a level of support that's truly therapeutic.

Even so, your obligations as a private employer when it comes to allowing an emotional support animal in the workplace fall under the heading of a reasonable accommodation within the ADA framework.

In other words, you may be obliged to accommodate employees who, due to some form of disability, request changes that would allow them to continue working. The key is, whether the request is "reasonable" based on the individual's need and your capacity to make the accommodation. As a reminder, a job accommodation request for any kind of disability under the ADA is considered reasonable if it doesn't impose an "undue hardship" on your organization.

Undue Hardship Standard

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is the primary enforcer of the ADA, "every request for reasonable accommodation should be evaluated to determine if it would impose an undue hardship." Here are factors to consider:

  • The nature and cost of the accommodation needed,
  • The overall financial resources of the business; the number of employees, and the effect on expenses and resources of the business, and
  • The impact of the accommodation on the business.
  • As with other disability-related accommodation requests, it may be a good idea to require employees to seek permission in writing if they want to bring an ESA to work. The request could include a questionnaire about the temperament and house-training habits of the animal and proof of necessary shots, such as a current rabies vaccination. Note, however, that even if the accommodation request is initially made orally, you have been put on notice, and generally can't brush it off.
  • Upon receiving a request, the EEOC says, you and the employee "should engage in an informal process to clarify what the individual needs and identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation." You can also ask for some form of documentation that would give you confidence that the need is real, if you're in doubt.

Reasonable Accommodation

So what kind of request for an ESA could you "reasonably" accommodate, once you're satisfied that the employee's request is valid? For starters, it's probably a bad idea to shoot down a request based on a blanket "no pets allowed" rule. However, you can require that the animal be well-behaved, and that the employee will attend to the animal's needs to use the "facilities."

Reasonable accommodations that could address other possible concerns about the presence of an ESA at work might include providing the employee with an enclosed office (assuming of course, that the employee does office work). Also, you may be able to limit the animal's territory to one area of the workplace, so that fewer employees who may be bothered by the presence of the ESA would be impacted. If questions arise about the animal's odor or shedding, you might consider adding an extra air cleaner, as a reasonable accommodation.

Assuming you do arrive at a workable strategy that makes it possible for the ESA to be on the premises, it doesn't have to be a permanent arrangement. To play it safe, make it clear that you're willing to give it a try for a specified period of weeks or months, then decide whether to continue. Suppose an employee with an ESA requires a separate office. You may find that designating a private office to that worker may make other offices uncomfortably crowded. It could also cause resentment among other employees who have given up their space. Keep in mind, if problems arise, you can always modify the accommodations.

As wonderful as it can be for some people to have pets in the workplace, not everyone feels the same way. You could find yourself in a balancing act between strong feelings on both sides. The bottom line is, if you're faced with a request to allow an animal into the workplace, you stand a better chance of arriving at a good solution if you begin the dialog by assuming the request has been made in good faith and not frivolously.