October 3, 2006 > Watercooler Counsel
by Rich Proulx
Q: One of my employees came in to work today with a note from her therapist saying she needed a companion dog to accompany her to work. I know this employee had a really traumatic thing happen to her, but I also don't like the idea of a dog in the workplace. I asked the employee and the dog isn't registered with the county as a service dog, but she said she's still allowed to have it. I know service dogs are allowed in public places, but do I have to allow her to bring the dog to work?
Not an Animal Fan
A: These days, animals are being used for many more functions than those we traditionally imagine. Many doctors have begun to "prescribe" companion animals to individuals with psychological impairments such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder because animals have been shown to have innate soothing or protective qualities. However, not all of these animals meet the definition of "service animal."
According to Malinda Tuazon, EEOC Investigator, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as one that is "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability." If animals meet this definition, they do not necessarily need to be licensed or certified by a state or local government, nor would they be required to wear special identifying collars or harnesses.
If you have questions about the animal's training, it's ok to ask your employee. This is part of the interactive process required when an employee requests an accommodation. The tricky part is that while the section of the ADA which deals with public access specifically addresses service animal issues, the employment section does not. Accordingly, it is advised to treat service animal situations like other reasonable accommodation requests: the employer must consider allowing an employee with a disability to use a service animal at work unless it poses an undue hardship. Your situation is not an easy one.
Q: I have established that I need to allow one of my employees to bring a service animal to work. Most of the staff is thrilled by this news. The problem is, I have one employee who is very allergic to animals. I don't want to let either of the employees go, but I don't see another option.
What should I do?
Dealing with Dander
A: Excellent question! There are several ways to solve this problem that don't involve letting someone go. Try allowing the employees to work on opposite ends of the building or at home, if possible. Use a portable air filter at each work station and add HEPA filters to the existing ventilation system. Ask the employee with the service animal to regularly use dander care products and have the work areas-carpets, cubicle walls and window treatments-cleaned, dusted and vacuumed regularly. For even more tips, give the Job Accommodation Network a call at (800) 526-7234. They an excellent clearinghouse of reasonable accommodations and will tailor their suggestions to your specific situation with no cost to you or your employees.
Rich and his team of government experts are definitely not allergic to your tough questions-ask away! October is Adopt-a-Dog month-According to the Humane Society of the United States, as many as 8 million cats and dogs enter shelters each year and half of those are euthanized. Send your questions to Rich at Watercooler.Counsel@eeoc.gov who is a former Supervisory Investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission www.eeoc.gov. Identifying information in the questions may be fictional.