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Q&A: Do we need a company policy related to service animals in the workplace?

Question:

Do we need a company policy related to service animals in the workplace? What if someone asks to bring one in?

Answer from Emily, PHR:

You do not need to have a specific policy on service animals for your employees. If a request comes up, I would recommend relying on your disability accommodation process and engaging in the interactive process.

First, determine if the employee has a covered disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The best way to do this is to provide the employee with a medical inquiry form that they can have completed by their doctor. This form will help you ascertain what accommodation the employee needs to do their job and whether you, as the employer, can accommodate it or suggest alternatives.

If the employee is not disabled as defined by the ADA, you are not required to allow them to bring an animal to work. But if they provide documentation supporting their need for a service animal, you should attempt to accommodate the employee. Note that the ADA is very broad in its definition of a disability, which is why we recommend that you rely on the medical opinion of your employee's doctor to determine whether or not a disability exists.

While emotional support animals, comfort animals, or therapy animals (I’ll call them all support animals) are often used as part of a medical treatment plan, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. As a result, their presence is not considered a reasonable accommodation, even with a doctor’s note.

When an employee requests permission to bring a service or support animal to work as a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the employer should recognize that the only basis for denial of this request is:

  • The employee is not a qualified person with a disability as defined by the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or state law;
  • The animal does not meet the definition of a service animal in the ADA or other relevant law;
  • The presence of the service animal would place an undue burden on the employer; or,
  • The presence of the service animal would interfere with the employer’s ability to conduct business.

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Emily joins the team with over six years of experience in HR, primarily in the healthcare and hospitality industries. She also spent a year running a non-profit. She graduated college with degrees in Music and Entrepreneurial Business, and her passion for helping and working alongside people led her to the field of HR. In her free time, Emily enjoys traveling and home brewing with her husband.

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