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Emotional Support Animals: Embracing the Bark, Meow, or Oink

By Toni Ahl - May 6, 2021 4:15:31 PM - 4 MINS READ

Should you embrace the bark, meow or oink?

I attended a webinar recently and one of the things they said at the beginning is that they had decided to embrace the bark. I asked what that meant and they responded by saying that they had decided not to worry if they heard barking or other types of home noises in the background while they were conducting their webinars. That reminded me of service or emotional support animals in the workplace.

As you probably know, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has several titles as part of the Act. Title I of the ADA deals with employment issues. Title II of the ADA deals with state and local government services. Title III of the ADA deals with issues of public accommodation and commercial facilities. Titles II and III of the ADA are enforced by the Department of Justice and define what constitutes a service animal. These two titles specifically exclude emotional support animals as being considered as an accommodation. Under these titles, a service animal is defined as a dog which is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Some miniature horses which have been appropriately trained may also meet the definition of service animals under these two titles.

You may have heard on the news recently that airlines had determined that the only animals they would allow to accompany a customer on a flight were service animals. Emotional support animals were not included any longer as being allowed. Since flying on an airplane would be an issue of public accommodation, the airlines can ban all but service animals.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title I of the ADA. Title I of the ADA does not define service animals nor does it exclude emotional support animals. The only reference to a type of service animal in EEOC’s regulations is in an example that talks about a service dog.

Employers are not automatically bound to allow service animals in the workplace and need to proceed through the reasonable accommodation process if an employee requests to have a service animal in the workplace. Employers also need to consider requests for emotional support animals as requests for reasonable accommodation in employment situations.

If an employee requests to have either a service animal or an emotional support animal at work, the employer should open a discussion with the employee about the request. Engaging in the interactive process is paramount to achieving an effective accommodation for an employee. If the employer has specific questions regarding service and/or emotional support animals, they may wish to contact the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) for assistance. JAN has experts on staff to assist both employees and employers with requests for reasonable accommodation and specifically regarding service and/or emotional support animals. I have found them to be extremely knowledgeable and helpful in discussing various disabilities and possible accommodations for them. The website for JAN is askjan.org. JAN also hosts webinars to discuss various issues regarding disabilities and accommodation.

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. I think it is appropriate to discuss emotional support animals during this month. Many employees need emotional support animals to deal with mental impairments. Most mental impairments are not readily observable so the employer may not be aware of the disability until the employee requests a reasonable accommodation. Keeping an open mind and listening to what the employee says about the need is very important during the interactive process. And remember that a service animal and/or an emotional support animal may be any type of animal in the employment context.

Due to the pandemic and many employees being allowed to work from home, the issue of service and/or emotional support animals may not have come up recently. The additional stress of the pandemic may have caused some types of mental impairments such as anxiety to develop and/or worsen. When employees return to work, animals in the workplace may become an issue. And, if your company already has a pet friendly policy, there really should be no need to go through an extensive interactive process for the employee with a disability.

Petco did a survey of 2000 pet owners in April 2021 and found that 65% of the pet owners who could not bring their pets with them when they returned to work worried that their pets would have separation anxiety. The same survey revealed that 62% of the respondents had a more favorable attitude toward companies who allowed pets. Almost half of the respondents, 44%, wanted their companies to adopt a pet friendly policy and 41% said they would consider changing jobs if it meant they could bring their pets to work. Not all companies can adopt a pet friendly policy, but it is something to consider if your company can allow pets. If you decide to allow pets, you need a policy outlining what employees should expect if they decide to bring their pets to the workplace.

If you have questions about service and/or emotional support animals, feel free to reach out to me at eeoadvantage@gmail.com or (502) 553-7648. And perhaps we should all embrace the bark, meow or squawk even if not for an accommodation.

Toni Ahl

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