The use of emotional support animals is on the rise. You may recall hearing stories of unusual requests involving emotional support animals, like the woman who tried to buy a plane ticket for her emotional support peacock earlier this year. United Airlines refused to allow the peacock on its plane, but such stories have led some employers to think about what they would, should, or can do if faced with a request to bring an emotional support animal into the workplace. First, it’s important to remember:
Emotional support animals are not service animals
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its related regulations, only dogs and miniature horses qualify as service animals. In addition, in order to qualify as a service animal, the dog or miniature horse must 1) be required due to a disability and 2) be trained to perform specific tasks related to the disability. So if an animal is trained to perform specific tasks related to a mental disability such as retrieving medication or water in the case of an anxiety attack or obtaining help in a crisis situation, the animal is a service animal. An animal that is not trained to perform any specific tasks but whose function is to help an individual stay calm by its mere presence – in other words, an emotional support animal – is not a service animal and is not subject to the laws that apply to service animals.
Place of public accommodation vs. place of employment
There are clear rules on when businesses must allow members of the public to bring service animals into their buildings. Subject to certain exceptions, businesses generally must allow service animals in areas open to the public, and they are not allowed to require proof of disability or proof that an animal is a service animal. A business faced with a request by a member of the public to be accompanied by a service animal may ask only two questions: 1) Is this a service animal required because of a disability? and 2) What work tasks has the animal been trained to perform?
But the section of the ADA that requires places of public accommodation to admit service animals is different than the section of the ADA that applies to employment accommodations. Contrary to popular belief, there is no automatic requirement that employers allow employees to bring service animals to work. A request to bring a service animal to work should be treated like any other request for accommodation, meaning an employer should evaluate whether allowing the animal at work would create an undue hardship for its organization or whether there are alternative accommodations that would be effective. And like in the case of any other request for reasonable accommodation, the employer is entitled to obtain information from an employee’s doctor to determine whether the employee is in fact disabled and whether the requested accommodation is necessary for the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.
Conversely, the fact that an emotional support animal is not a service animal does not mean an employer need not consider allowing the animal in the workplace. If an employee can demonstrate that the emotional support animal is required due to a disability, the employer must apply the same reasonable accommodation analysis as it would for a request to bring a service animal to work. In other words, an employer should evaluate a request to bring an emotional support animal to work the way it would evaluate any other accommodation request.
Employers should have a plan in place to handle requests to bring service animals or emotional support animals to work. Employers that rent or lease their work spaces should familiarize themselves with any building rules regarding animals on the premises and talk to their property manager about the possibility of making exceptions to any such rules. If an employer decides to allow an animal at work, it should consider mitigating any effects on other employees, particularly those who may be allergic to or uncomfortable around animals. And of course, employers who have any questions about whether or how to accommodate an employee’s request for accommodation – animal-related or otherwise – should seek advice from experienced employment counsel.