Assistive Animals in the California Workplace: Your Rights as An Employee Under California Law
It is well established that California employers may not discriminate against an employee on the basis of a disability under both federal and state law. Those laws also provide, among other things, that an employer must make any “reasonable accommodation” requested by the employee for their disability to enable them to function at work.
What you may not realize, however, is that a reasonable accommodation may include allowing a disabled employee to bring “assistive” or “support” animals to work.
Service vs. Support Animals
Under regulations adopted by the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment (DFEH) in 2016, “[a]llowing applicants or employees to bring assistive animals to the work site” is considered a “reasonable accommodation” for disabled individual. The regulations mention guide dogs (who serve the blind), signal dogs (who serve the deaf), and service dogs as examples of assistive animals.
But the rules also broadly refer to “support dogs,” which includes not just dogs but any animal “that provides emotional, cognitive, or other similar support to a person with a disability, including, but not limited to, traumatic brain injuries or mental disabilities, such as major depression.”
One key difference between support animals and the more specific categories of service dogs is that the latter are specially trained to perform their tasks. In contrast, support animals do not require any particular training. Nor can an employer require such animal have training as a condition of allowing it in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation.
That said, California rules do allow employers to set the following limits on the use of all assistive animals in the workplace:
- The animal must be “free from offensive orders” and display habits that are conducive to a professional workplace–e.g., it cannot urinate or defecate everywhere.
- The animal cannot “engage in behavior that endangers the health or safety” of anyone in the workplace, including the person it is supposed to be assisting.
Which Employers Are Required to Accommodate Assistive Animals
Both federal and state laws protect the right of disabled employees and job applicants to request the use of a service or support animal as a reasonable accommodation. Keep in mind, however, that federal disability law only covers private employers with at least 15 employees, while California’s regulations apply to businesses with as few as 5 workers. All public employers–i.e., state and local government agencies–are covered regardless of the number of employees.
And even when an employer is covered by the law, the employee or applicant is not automatically entitled to bring an animal to work. The employer may have the right to first request medical proof showing not only the existence of the employee or applicant’s disability, but also documentation of the need to use a support or service animal as an accommodation to help them do their job.
If you have additional questions or concerns about the use of assistive animals in the workplace, contact a qualified California employment law attorney today.