Thursday, July 7, 2022

A Q&A on service animals at work

The EEOC has sued Hobby Lobby, accusing the arts-and-crafts retailer of refusing to reasonably accommodate a cashier by declining her the use a service dog and ultimately firing her.

The agency shares the details in its press release:

According to the suit, the employee advised her manager that she needed to bring her fully trained service dog to work to assist her with symptoms caused by PTSD, anxiety and depression. The company's human resources representative met with the employee to discuss her request but concluded the dog would present a safety concern because a coworker or customer might be allergic to or trip over the dog, or the dog might break something. Even though Hobby Lobby allows customers to bring service dogs and other dogs to the store, managers were unwilling to allow the employee's service dog in the store to see whether there was an actual safety concern. Hobby Lobby ultimately terminated the employee when she could not work without her service dog.
According to David Davis, acting director of the EEOC's St. Louis District Office: "Service animals assist people with many types of disabilities — from vision and mobility impairments to seizure disorders and mental health conditions — to live and work independently. Employers must not reject service animals, or any other reasonable accommodation, based on stereotypes or assumptions regarding the safety or effectiveness of the accommodation."

Here are some answers to some common questions employers might have about service animals.

Q: What types of animals does the ADA permit as service animals?

A: The ADA limits service animals dogs and miniature horses (although note that there is no such limitation on emotional support animals).

Q: Must an employer allow all request for service animals?

A: No. As with any request for an accommodation, an employee's request for a service animal is subject to the interactive process, and employer may be entitled to receive some medical information about the employee's disability how the service animal presence will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. If the disability and need are readily apparent, however (such as blind employee's seeing eye dog), an employer may not be entitled to seek medical information and confirmation.

Q: Who is responsible for caring for the service animal during the work day?

A: It is the employee's responsibility to care for and monitor the service animal, including cleaning up any messes (outside and inside). It is the employer's responsibility to make accommodations that allow the employee to care for the employee, such as providing time to take the animal outside to relieve itself and a reasonable designated space to do so. The employer and employee would discuss these details during interactive process.

Q: May an employer place limits on where a service animal can go in the workplace?

A: A service animal is not a pet, it's an extension of the employee because it enables the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. Thus, the animal should be allowed to go anywhere needed by the employee for this purposes. Again, these details should be discussed and worked out during interactive process.

Q: What if other employees are allergic to the service animal?

A: Generally speaking, simple strategies that separate the service animal from the affected worker(s) offer simple solutions. The presence of another employee's allergy to a service animal is not a reason to prohibit the accommodation, although these should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and depend on the severity of the allergy and the potential reaction.

Hobby Lobby answered nearly all of these questions incorrectly, and got sued as a result. Don't make the same mistake. Don't be Hobby Lobby. And if you have any questions at all, call your employment counsel before you deny an accommodation and get yourself sued, too.