Service dogs have been helping people with disabilities live more independently for 250 years. These smart, loyal companions serve as guides for people who are visually impaired, increase independence for people with mobility issues, alert people with diabetes to high and low blood sugar levels and help people with PTSD feel safer in the world, among many other functions. That’s why they’re protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act both in public and in the workplace.
Johns, Flaherty & Collins employment law attorney David Pierce says the ADA defines a service animal as “any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability” that directly relates to the individual’s disability. The ADA does not cover emotional support animals.
The act requires service dogs be allowed with their handlers into all public places, but some of the vagaries in the law present challenges for businesses and employers when presented with potentially fake service animals. “Getting a service animal vest is as easy as plunking down $20 online,” says Pierce.
But out of respect for people with disabilities, the ADA prohibits entities from asking about the disability or requesting documentation. It does, however, allow you to ask these two questions:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What type of work is the dog trained to perform?
“Like any other requests surrounding disabilities,” says Pierce, “employers must treat seriously employee requests to bring service animals to work, or they could face an ADA violation penalty as high as $75,000 for a first-time offense.”
Pierce says requests to bring service animals to work should be treated as requests for “reasonable accommodations,” defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables someone with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. If you can accommodate the request without “undue hardship” (significant difficulty or expense), you’re wise to do so.
“You may also want to consider allowing the accommodated employee to take extra breaks to care for the service animal and instructing other employees about how to treat and interact with service animals,” adds Pierce.
If other workers complain or have dog allergies, you may also need to consider whether their issues constitute disabilities under ADA and may need their own accommodations.
If you have questions about reasonable accommodations and service animals in your specific workplace, consult a trusted employment law attorney. And for ideas for accommodating service animals in the workplace, including dealing with allergic co-workers, visit the Job Accommodation Network and scroll down to “Accommodation Ideas.”
Information provided by David Pierce, employmentconsumer attorney at Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC. For an employment lawyer in La Crosse, contact him at 608-784-5678.