Dogs in the Workplace

September 26, 2018

Dogs are known as man’s best friend. But for most of American history, dogs have been shunned from the workplace. However, in recent years dogs have become more common in professional settings, to provide service animal accommodations for employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or simply to boost employee morale. Some employers have also opted to provide dog-friendly benefits to employees. This article will explain what accommodations employers must provide for employees with service animals, as well as examine the new “furternity” leave trend, which allows employees to take time off after getting a new dog.

ADA Accommodations for Employees

Under Title I of the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities, unless the accommodation would result in an undue hardship to the employer. Whether or not an employer needs to accommodate an employee’s request for a service animal at work turns on the reasonableness of the accommodation in the specific employment context.

An employer needs to treat a request for a service animal the same as it would treat any other disability accommodation. The employer must provide the service animal accommodation if the request would not result in an undue hardship to the employer. If the employee’s disability is not obvious, the employer may request documentation from the employee to demonstrate that the employee needs the service animal to perform his or her job duties. In addition, the employer may request documentation to prove that the service animal is properly trained to provide the accommodation and will not cause a disruption in the workplace.

An employer may not deny the accommodation because of other employees’ allergies or phobia of dogs, as long as the employer can remedy the situation. For example, the employer could separate the disabled employee’s work area, allow the disabled employee to telecommute, or change the disabled employee’s work schedule. Any method that provides the disabled employee the service animal accommodation while preventing an adverse effect on other employees would be acceptable.

However, if there is no way for the employer to remedy the situation, and the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for the employer then the employer has the right to deny the accommodation. For example, if the workplace only has one space for employees to perform their job duties, then an employee who is allergic to, or afraid of, dogs would not be able to work without being exposed to the service animal – which would create an undue hardship for the employer.

When receiving a service animal accommodation request, we recommend that the employer carefully weighs their options, without immediately rejecting the request. An employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation, not necessarily his or her preferred accommodation. The employer can create a dialogue with the disabled employee about the most effective method to provide his or her service animal accommodation. It is advisable to create procedures and ground rules for the service animal in the workplace. The employer should explicitly state that the disabled employee is responsible for the animal’s care. This includes bathroom breaks, up-to-date vaccinations, and controlling the animal’s behavior in the workplace to avoid disruption. Further, the employer may be required to provide additional accommodations relating to the service animal’s care, including granting additional breaks to the disabled employee to walk the dog.

Fear and Phobias

A 2001 Galllup poll found that 11% of those surveyed were afraid of dogs. Employees who are afraid of dogs will likely be uncomfortable with dogs in the workplace. Under Title I of the ADA, a phobia disorder is a disability only if it is a mental impairment that substantially limits one’s major life activities. Therefore, if an employee is unable to work in an environment where dogs are present, that would likely be considered a disability under the ADA. However, as mentioned above, an employer can only deny an employee to have a service dog in the workplace because of another employee’s phobia of dogs if the employer cannot provide the employee with the phobia a work environment separate from the service dog.

“Furternity” Leave

A progressive new workplace trend is emerging – pet-friendly benefits. Some of these benefits include pet bereavement, pet health insurance, and “furternity” leave. Furternity leave policies allow employees to take time off when they get a new pet.

Believing that entering a new home can be a stressful situation for both pets and their owners. Some companies, including a Minnesota marketing firm, Nina Hale, have begun giving employees leave when acquiring a new pet. These employers have created these policies as a way to attract and retain workers, particularly millennials.

Steven Feldman, an executive director at the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (“HABRI”), says that these pet-friendly policies are a “signal [the employer is] looking at the employee’s entire family.” In fact,  a recent survey conducted by HABRI found that 90 percent of staffers in pet-friendly workplaces report that they feel connected to their employer’s mission.

When implementing a pet-friendly policy such as furternity leave, employers need to create a detailed policy to formalize the process for taking the leave. The policy should require managerial approval for any leave taken. Employers looking to implement pet-friendly policies may also start with a temporary pilot program, which outlines the goals of the policy and what is expected from employees in order to make the policy permanent.

Takeaway

Allowing dogs in the workplace is far from a mainstream trend, but knowledgeable employers need to recognize the legal issues involved. When an employer receives a service animal accommodation request, they need to take the request seriously.

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