Employers know they need to accommodate a disabled employee’s request to bring a service dog to work. However, what happens when employees claim they are stressed and need to bring their dog to work for emotional support? Here are the top five questions on emotional support dogs:
1. Do we need to allow an employee to bring an emotional support dog?
Yes, if the dog is a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee. The Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) governs service and emotional support dogs. Under FEHA regulations, an “assistive animal” is an animal that is “necessary as a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability.” The regulations list as an example: “‘Support dog’ or other animal that provides emotional 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.” (2 C.C.R. §11065(a).) In fact, the regulations provide allowing employees to bring “assistive animals to the work site” as an example of a reasonable accommodation. (2 C.C.R. §11065(p)(2)(B).)
When an employee requests to bring an emotional support dog to work, the employer should engage in the interactive process and respond to the employee as it would toward any accommodation request by evaluating the following three factors:
- Reasonableness: Is the requested accommodation reasonable?
- Effectiveness: Is the request effective? Will this requested accommodation effectively allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job?
- Undue Hardship: Does the request pose an undue hardship? With assistive animals, employers must weigh issues such as whether the animal will be disruptive to the workplace.
Just because an employee claims he/she is stressed and needs a support dog, without any documentation from a medical provider, this claim in and of itself does not require that the employer allow the dog.
2. Can we ask for documentation of the employee’s disability and the need for the support dog?
Yes. As with any request for an accommodation, the employer may request documentation from the employee’s health care provider stating the employee has a disability and explaining why the employee requires the animal in the workplace (e.g., why the animal is a necessary accommodation to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job).
3. What if the dog bites, smells, barks constantly, or goes to the bathroom in the office?
Under FEHA regulations, employers can require assistive animals to meet minimum standards. Employers may require the assistive animal (1) is “free from offensive odors and displays habits appropriate to the work environment, for example, the elimination of urine and feces”, and (2) “not engage in behavior that endangers the health or safety of the individual with a disability or others in the workplace.” (2 C.C.R. §11065(a)(2).) Thus, if the dog engages in inappropriate or aggressive behavior, an employer does not have to allow it in the workplace.
4. If we let one person bring their dog, do we have to let everyone bring their pets?
No, allowing one employee to bring their dog would not require allowing all employees to bring their pets. Whether other employees would be allowed to bring their pets requires an individualized assessment through the interactive process. However, if other employees did submit similar medical certifications, it may be difficult for the employer to deny other employees’ requests based on undue burden once it determines it is a reasonable accommodation for one employee.
5. What can we say if people ask why someone is allowed to bring their dog to work, or if people complain about there being a dog at work?
It is difficult to respond to a question about someone bringing a support dog to work without divulging private medical information. The best way to respond is stating the employee is allowed to bring their dog as an accommodation and leave it at that.
It is also reasonable to be concerned that employees may complain about the dog, for instance because the employees are scared or allergic. Employees have a right to a support dog at work as a reasonable accommodation to a documented disability unless it is an undue burden. If other employees voice concern, the employer should listen and see if it can address the concerns while still accommodating the disabled employee. If not, the employer can evaluate whether allowing the dog is now an undue burden. However, at least one study has reported that pets in the workplace reduce stress for their owner and co-workers as well!
6. Can the dog spread coronavirus in the workplace?
According to the CDC website, the risk for animals spreading coronavirus to the workplace appears to be low and there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus. Anyone bringing a dog to work will have comply with required workplace coronavirus safety procedures.