A Hairy Question: Service Animals in the Workplace and the Law
Advancements in animal training and alternative medical treatments mean that animals today can be much more than just pets. Service animals in today’s society can provide medical assistance for many types of human disabilities and medical conditions. An employer or business owner’s failure to accommodate these service animals in the workplace in accordance with the applicable laws can result in potential liability. We examine how Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Florida state law may apply to service animals and what accommodations must be made.
Title I of the ADA, which applies to private entities with more than 15 employees does not expressly address service animals in the workplace. It does, however, require that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities unless the accommodation would cause an undue hardship to the operation to the business or present a direct threat to health and safety.
Title III, which applies to “public accommodations”, states that service animals be granted access to all areas of government facilities, businesses, and nonprofit organizations where public access is normally allowed.
What is considered a service animal?
For these purposes, the ADA defines a service animal as “any dog that is 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.”
A revision of the ADA regulations in 2010 led to the inclusion of miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
However, Florida law extends the definition of a service animal to an animal that is trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability including, but not limited to, guiding a person who is visually impaired or blind, alerting a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, pulling a wheelchair, assisting with mobility or balance, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, retrieving objects, or performing other special tasks.
Are Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals considered service animals under the ADA?
No. These animals, while often used as part of a medical treatment plan to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or promote emotional wellbeing, are not limited to working with people with disabilities and are therefore not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals.
What accommodations must an employer make for service animals?
Title III requires:
a public accommodation to modify policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability
- public accommodations to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability
Can an employee’s request to bring a service animal to work be denied?
Yes, but only if the employer can show that doing so would cause undue hardship. This means that the accommodation would result in significant difficulty or expense to the employer or that the accommodation would be unduly extensive, substantial or disruptive, or that it would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. It should be noted that the standard for proving undue hardship is high.
Many aspects of the ADA’s application to service animals in the workplace need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. For this reason, it is important to contact a lawyer who specialized in such issues before making any decisions that may open you up to liability.