Dogs in the Workplace: Can My Employer Say No?
According to a 2016 Society of Human Resources Management report, 7% of employers allow dogs in the workplace. Many of our employer clients have begun to allow their employees to bring dogs to work. We think that’s a pretty good idea for the very same reasons we have two in our workplace. Dogs just make the day better. We do that by choice. But are there situations where we, and other employers, would be legally required to allow animals in the workplace? The answer to that question involves a discussion of two laws.
As an aside, we thought a lot about how having dogs in the office would fit in our workplace. In all honesty, one of the reasons for starting Steffans Legal was that doing so would allow us to bring our dog (back then it was just Elliot) to work. We fought through the “you can’t do that, you’re a law firm” mentality and brought them to work. We’ve been open for 11 months. We’ve had 100s of visitors. In that time, only one person has asked that the dogs not be present when they came to our office.
Dogs in the Workplace as an Accommodation Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must provide employees with “reasonable accommodations” that will allow that employee to perform essential job functions. In terms of employees, an employer must treat an employee’s request to bring a dog to work as a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Under this framework, employers must engage in an “interactive process” with the disabled employee to evaluate the reasonableness of the request. The employer can only deny the request if it poses an “undue burden” on the employer. The reasonableness of any given request to bring a service animal to work will depend on the particular facts and circumstances of each individual case.
Based on some very non-scientific research, dogs can help employees with vision/hearing limitations, help employees walk, help employees climb stairs, and emotionally comfort employees with emotional disorders.
On at least one occasion, courts have held that allowing employees to bring a service dog to work was a “reasonable accommodation.” In EEOC v. CRST Int’l, Inc., the EEOC filed a complaint against a Florida trucking company claiming that the employer wrongfully failed to accommodate a truck driver’s request to have his dog with him as he drove his trucking routes. Unlike some service dogs that perform physical tasks for disabled individuals with vision, hearing, mobility, and other impairments, the dog in this case provided emotional support for its owner’s post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorder. The EEOC determined that the company wrongfully refused to employ the driver without going through any “interactive process” to determine whether or not driving with his dog was a reasonable accommodation.
The anti-discrimination laws are designed to require employers to modify their work policies and performance requirements, in “reasonable” fashions, and when doing so will allow a disabled employee to perform their job. To be sure, there are certainly situations where having a dog at work would not be reasonable. The important thing for employers to remember is that courts strongly disfavor employers who don’t engage in good faith interactive processes with the requesting employee.
Have questions about taking your dog to work or allowing employees to bring dogs to work?