More and more companies are instituting “bring your pet to work days” or allowing animals at work when trying to encourage a more collegial environment. But, does an employer need to allow employees to bring their animals to work? The short answer is – maybe. It depends whether the animal is a “pet” or a “service animal.”
On the one hand, employers may impose no-pet rules which prohibit pets from being brought into the workplace. However, the law does not consider service animals to be in the same category as “pets.” Rather, service animals perform valuable jobs and are often integral in the lives of a disabled employee. Service animals are trained to perform tasks such as helping a blind person navigate, providing alerts to a hearing-impaired person, assisting a person during a seizure, or even alerting the person to on-coming seizures, pulling a wheelchair, and alerting a person to their need for medicine.
Employers may be required to allow employees with disabilities to bring service animals to work as a reasonable accommodation. At a minimum, such requests from employees need to be considered and treated as any other such request and cannot be dismissed out of hand. The requests need to be considered even if the employer is not aware that the employee is disabled.
As with any other employee requests for reasonable accommodations, the employer and employee are required to engage in an interactive process to determine whether the employer can honor the request. This process starts with the employee requesting the presence of an animal at work. In response to the request, the employer would need to determine the reason for the request, and whether the animal is a pet or a service animal. Employers may request documentation or other proof that the employee needs the service animal to assist a disabled employee to perform the tasks of his or her job, to access the work facilities or to otherwise enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.
Accommodations provided by employers need to be reasonable and can be refused if they would cause an undue hardship on the company. Thus, employers may consider the effects on the company, other employees, and visitors to the workspace of the service animal in the workplace. Employers may ask questions about the service animal’s training, and consider whether the service animal may be a threat to the health and safety of others in the workplace.
Determining whether an employee must be permitted to bring an animal into the workplace is a fact-specific evaluation that should be considered carefully. Employers would be prudent to keep records of all the issues considered. If a disabled employee or potential employee requests to bring a service animal into the workplace, employers should consult with counsel regarding the specific situation to ensure the company complies with any applicable federal, state or local laws.