Service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs) are increasingly common fixtures of modern society. As a business owner, you may consider yourself an “animal person” and still have some hesitation about allowing dogs and other animals into your place of business. How should you respond to customers with animals, on balance with clients and employees with allergies or fears of dogs? What about when an employee brings a service dog or ESA in the workplace? What steps can you take to accommodate the employee’s request and maintain a safe and productive workspace? Each situation raises important legal and business considerations to keep in mind when approaching the issue.
Service dogs and ESAs: The most important law around service animals and ESAs is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, a “service animal” is a dog (or miniature horse [not a joke]) that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. Alternatively, an ESA’s purpose is to comfort and relieve a person’s disability. These animals do not need to have specific training related to a person’s disability.
Business owners: Public-facing businesses are not allowed to prohibit service dogs from entering their premises, but they are allowed to prohibit emotional support animals. Under the ADA, you are allowed to ask only two questions before giving a service dog permission to enter: One: “Is this dog a service dog?” Two: “What kind of work or tasks does the dog perform?”
You may NOT ask about the person’s disability, for proof that the animal is certified, or for the animal to demonstrate a task. Unlike their obligations regarding service animals, business owners have full discretion as to whether to admit emotional support animals. However, from a customer relations standpoint, it is advisable to admit ESAs whenever feasible.
Employers: Unlike businesses who serve the public, employers have a bit more discretion when it comes to service dogs and emotional support animals in the workplace. The ADA does not distinguish between ESAs and service animals – service dogs (miniature horses) and ESAs should be treated just like any other request for reasonable accommodation. In other words, the accommodation request should be granted unless it would cause an undue hardship.
Responding to employee requests: When an employee requests to bring their service dog or ESA to work, the decision-maker must try to balance the employee’s needs with the larger need to maintain a safe and productive workspace. Do not assume the dog is just a pet or question the employee directly about their disability; but also, do not assume you are required to tolerate the animal if there are clear circumstances that make having it in the workplace an undue burden. When you talk to the employee, have the same care and understanding you would have with an employee who is requesting any other form of accommodation for any other disability. Keep in mind, and remind your other employees, that service animals and emotional support animals add value to the employment setting as they promote the effective job performance of disabled employees.
If it seems like you are pushing an employee for answers or accommodating a disruptive dog, or if you need more detailed direction on the best way to accommodate a service animal or ESA, feel free to reach out to Stanton Law, and we can provide guidance on your unique case.