Balancing Undue Hardships Caused by Employees Bringing Service Animals to Work

April 14, 2017

Topics: Disability and Leave Obligations

Allowing a disabled employee to bring a service animal to work could be an undue hardship on the employer that would justify denying the request.  This could occur if the presence of the animal in the workplace poses a threat to the health and safety of other employees.  Let’s consider some potential scenarios where such a situation might rise to the level of an undue hardship.

What if another employee is allergic to the service animal?

As a general rule, the fact that other employees may be allergic to the service animal is not a reason to bar the animal from the workplace. Rather, the employer must balance the needs of both the disabled employee and the allergic employee, and try to find a way to accommodate them both.  For example, the employer might be able to move the employees’ workspaces, or perhaps even their schedules, so that the two employees do not work in the same location or at the same time.  Alternatively, the employer might be able to take steps to mitigate the effect of the allergens in the workplace, such as providing employees with portable air purifiers, adding filters to the workplace ventilation system and/or having the workplace cleaned regularly.  To the extent that both employees are considered disabled, the employer needs to attempt to see if it can reasonably accommodate them both.

What if another employee is afraid of the service animal?

The fact that another employee (or even the boss) is afraid of the service animal is unlikely to be considered a sufficient undue hardship that would permit the employer to refuse a disabled employee’s request to bring a service animal to work.  Rather, as in the situation where other employees are allergic to the service animal, the employer must balance the needs of their employees.  Some of the same proposed solutions may work here, including moving the employees’ workspaces away from each other, providing one or more employees with private or closed-off workspaces, arranging employees’ schedules so that they do not work at the same time, and/or scheduling time in the break room or common areas so that the employees do not overlap.  How to address this might depend on whether the fearful employee is also disabled, requiring the employer to accommodate both.  However, this can also become a morale issue.  As with all of these determinations, step by step, rather than snap judgements, are best.

What if the service animal barks or bites?

In the event that the service animal barks or makes other noise that employees find disruptive, the employer must investigate the reason for the noise. Some animals are trained to bark or engage in other actions to alert the disabled person to an impending seizure or other danger, to remind the person to take medication, or to summon aid.  Such noises likely need to be permitted, although random noises that disrupt the workplace and serve no purpose to the disabled employee may not.  The employer may inquire as to the purpose for the noise, the training that the service animal has received, and may be required to accommodate the matter.

Biting, however, could lead to a different result.  Employers may ban service animals who pose a direct threat, whether to employees or to customers or clients, through biting or other threatening or harmful behaviors.

And keep in mind that reasonable accommodations for the service animals belonging to disabled employees usually do not apply to employees merely desiring to bring their pet to work.

In any event, employers should consult with counsel regarding the specific situation and regarding any applicable federal, state or local laws that might apply.