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Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace – ADA Guidelines

Posted by: Emma Berdanier on February 27th, 2020

People seem to be bringing animals everywhere these days. From attempting to board a plane with a peacock to walking into stores with untrained dogs, pets are everywhere. But what happens when one of your employees requests to bring an animal into the office to aid with their disability or emotional well-being?

The law does not require offices in America to allow animals in them. Many do, but having a pet-friendly office policy is different than accommodating an employee’s request for a service or emotional support animal. The government generally expects employers to accommodate requests for service animals. But they only need to if it doesn’t impose an undue hardship. There is, however, a big difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal.

The ADA and Service Animals

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) defines a service animal as one that is individually trained to work or perform a task for a person with a disability. An example of a service animal is a seeing-eye dog that performs a direct service to its blind owner.

An animal only qualifies as a service animal if the tasks performed by it are directly related to the person’s disability. Service animals must have undergone a federally regulated training program to be certified as service animals. Under the ADA, a service animal can only be a dog or a miniature horse. The federal government does not recognize any other species of animal as a service animal.

Emotional Support Animals

The ADA does not provide a definition for emotional support animals. These animals merely provide comfort just by being with a person. They do not perform a task that directly relates to a person’s disability. Because they were not trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

It is important to note that even if an employee presents a letter from a doctor stating they need an emotional support animal, this does not qualify that animal as a service animal. Employers in Colorado are under no obligation to allow emotional support animals into their businesses. This applies to both employees requesting to bring one to work and customers or clients requesting to bring one into your place of business.

Navigating a Conversation with Your Employee

So what happens if your employee comes to you asking to bring in their emotional support animal? The best course of action to take is to start the ADA interactive process with your employee. It’s also important to contact an employment attorney in these situations. Contacting an attorney ensures you don’t ask any questions you aren’t allowed to under the law.

The law does not obligate employers to concede to every accommodation request of their employees. With the interactive process, the government expects employers and employees to facilitate a discussion and come to an agreement on an acceptable accommodation. In the event that an employee requests to bring their emotional support animal into the office, you’ll likely be able to navigate the conversation and come to an agreement on a different, less disruptive accommodation.

This article does not constitute legal advice. J. Kent Staffing recommends you contact an employment attorney to fully understand your employer obligations related to this subject.


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