Emotional Support Animals & the Workplace

By Angela Adams, CEBS, SPHR, Director, Human Resource Services
Published July 24, 2018

Question: An employee wants to bring his dog to work with him, claiming it's an emotional support animal that helps him with stress and anxiety. Do we have to allow this?

Answer: You might. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” for employees and applicants with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are changes to how a job is completed that do not cause undue hardship on the employer, but allow the individual to perform all the essential functions of a job effectively. Stress and anxiety could qualify as disabilities that need to be accommodated.

It is important to note the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal. A service animal, per the ADA, is one that is trained on tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability, and are dogs or sometimes miniature horses. There is no automatic requirement under the ADA that an employee must be allowed to bring a service animal into the workplace, but a request to do so must be handled as any other made under the ADA for accommodation. The federally-run Job Accommodation Network has a good Q&A on this topic. 

If an employee has a disability serious enough to require a service animal, in most cases, unless there are safety concerns, it will be a reasonable accommodation to allow the animal in the workplace. Employers can ask for documentation that the animal is trained in service and is necessary; if the disability is obvious, for instance, the individual is blind, employers should skip the documentation requirement. 

Emotional support animals are not defined in the ADA, but a generally accepted explanation is a “companion animal” that a mental health professional has deemed helpful to someone with a disability, usually one emotional in nature. They are not trained in any specific task but rather provide comfort or a calming effect on the individual with a disability. They do not qualify as service animals under the ADA definition, and there is no Q&A about how they must be treated for accommodation purposes. They could be dogs, cats, or any other animal.

We recommend that you treat the request to bring an emotional support animal to work like any other request under the ADA. Ask for documentation about the disability and an explanation of how the accommodation of allowing the animal in the workplace would help the employee perform his or her job. Remember that under the ADA, if there are other accommodations that could have the same effect but cause less disruption, such as additional breaks, you may be able to deny the specific emotional support animal request but still accommodate the employee somehow. It may be easier to determine that there are alternate accommodations to an emotional support animal vs. a service animal. However, before you deny the request for any animal, make sure you contact legal counsel to discuss whether the animal would be a reasonable accommodation, as every situation is different.

While emotional support animals have been in the news in unflattering ways (such as the “emotional support peacock” a woman tried to bring onboard an airplane), the answer to a request to bring one into the workplace should not be a flat-out “No.”  An employer has the responsibility to determine whether the employee has a disability and if the request is reasonable.  HR Source members should call us at 800-448-4584 or email us at hotline@hrsource.org to discuss individual situations. 

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