Some people with disabilities use service animals at work to assist them with a variety of tasks. For example, someone with a severe vision impairment may rely on a guide dog for navigation in the workplace; a person who is deaf may receive assistance from a hearing or signal dog; someone with a seizure disorder may rely on a dog trained in seizure warnings and response; and someone with a psychiatric disability may rely on a psychiatric service dog for a variety of tasks, from soothing the effects of PTSD to interrupting the person's self-destructive behavior. If you have a service dog or "emotional support animal," read on to learn your workplace rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Under the part of the ADA that applies to public accommodations, a service animal is defined as a dog (or sometimes a miniature horse) that is individually trained to perform tasks or do work for the benefit of a person with a disability. This definition doesn’t include companion animals (pets), nor does it include what some call “emotional support animals”: animals that provide comfort and companionship to those with psychiatric or emotional disabilities or conditions. Although these animals often have therapeutic benefits, they are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers. Under the ADA, owners of public accommodations are not required to allow emotional support animals, only service animals.
The part of the ADA that applies to employment, however, does not use these same definitions; in fact, this part of the ADA doesn’t define “service animals” at all. Under the employment discrimination sections of the ADA, an employer may simply be required to allow an employee to use a service dog at work as a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability. An employer may also have to consider allowing an employee to use an emotional support or other assistance animal, if the employee requires the animal as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. (Under the ADA, employees with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations that will allow them to do their jobs, unless it would create undue hardship: significant expense or burden, given the size and resources of the employer.)
If you need an accommodation to do your job, you must request one. It’s best to put your request in writing, so you have a record of when you asked for an accommodation and what information you provided to your employer. In your letter, describe your disability and how it affects you. Explain that you would like to bring a service dog or assistance animal to work as an accommodation, and describe how the animal will assist you in performing your job. Describe how your animal has been trained and the tasks or work the animal does (for example, pulling your wheelchair, assisting you with manual tasks, or alerting you to the onset of a seizure). You may also want to describe how you will care for the animal at work, including where the animal will be and how the animal’s needs will be met. Your employer can request documentation of your need for the animal, the animal’s training and duties, and the animal’s good behavior.
An employer may deny your request to bring your service animal to work if it would create undue hardship. An employer cannot simply say “we don’t allow dogs,” or “it would be too disruptive to let you bring your dog to work.” Instead, the employer must show that allowing the accommodation would impose a significant burden or cost, given the nature and expense of the accommodation, the nature of the employer, the size and resources of the employer, and other accommodation costs the employer is currently bearing.
Sometimes, employers are concerned that it might be an undue hardship to allow a service dog if other employees have severe dog allergies. In this situation, there may be solutions that aren’t too costly or disruptive, such as providing air filters, moving employees away from each other and into private workspaces with doors that close, arranging for the dog to remain elsewhere when employees must interact (in meetings, for example), or creating a schedule for the use of public spaces so allergic employees need not come into contact with the dog.
Your employer can certainly require that your animal not disrupt the workplace. For example, your service animal should be under your control and well-behaved at all times. You should arrange to allow the dog to “use the facilities” as necessary, and the dog should be clean and free of fleas and other parasites.
If your employer denies your request to bring a needed service animal to work, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you assess the situation and decide the most effective way to proceed, such as writing a demand letter to your employer or filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.