One of the consequences of the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act’s expanded definition of disability is that employers are facing a much larger number of accommodation requests and therefore a greater number of potential accommodations. Anecdotally, I have seen a sharp uptick in the number of employees asking employers to bring animals to the workplace claiming that the animals are not pets, but are service animals that assist the employee with conditions that qualify as disabilities.
In my experience, most frequent is the claim that the service animals assists the employee in coping with a variety of mental disorders (e.g., PTSD, depression, anxiety) by alerting the employee to the onset of an psychological incident or by providing a calming influence during an incident. However, according to the Department of Justice, service animals may also assist individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.
Last week the EEOC brought suit against a national trucking company over its failure to hire an applicant who needed the use of service dog for his job. The service dog, according to the EEOC, was trained to assist the applicant in controlling his anxiety and to wake him up when he suffered nightmares caused by his PTSD. Because the job he applied for required overnight stays, the applicant claimed he needed the service animal to accompany him on the road. Again, according to the EEOC, CSRT failed to hire the employee or advance him into training because it maintained a “no pets” policy and further violated retaliated against him by failing to engage in the interactive process
A key takeaway from the new lawsuit is that an employer should not take an employee’s request to bring a service animal to work lightly. Absent circumstances where legal or regulatory limitations prohibit animals in the workplace (e.g., healthcare and restaurants) or other instances where the presence of an animal might pose a direct threat to the health and safety of the employee or others, an employer might be required to allow some service animal use for applicants and employees with disabilities. Employers receiving these requests should partner closely with their human resources or employment lawyers to evaluate these requests and engage in a good faith interactive process.
A copy of the EEOC’s complaint can be accessed here.
Other helpful information:
Most of the guidance on service animal access deals with public accommodation access under the ADA (Title III) and not with employment. Employers may have greater rights to request and obtain access to information relevant to determine a reasonable accommodation under the Title I of the ADA governing employment. Nonetheless, some of the public accommodation guidance may be useful and can found below.
Job Accommodation Network’s Guidance on Service Animals in the Workplace is here.
DOJ Civil Rights 2010 Guidance on Service Animals is here.
DOJ Civil Rights 2015 Supplemental Guidance and FAQ’s on Service Animals here.