SERVICE ANIMALS: A REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION REQUEST
Handling requests for service animals in the workplace as reasonable accommodations can pose unique challenges for employers. The main reason being that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not provide any guidance as it relates to employment, making it a complex issue to navigate. The only time service animals are discussed under the ADA is under Title II and Title III, which deals with public accommodations. While instructive, it doesn’t provide guidelines for application in the workplace. So how should employers handle these types of requests?
When an employee seeks permission to bring a service animal to work, the request should be processed like any other request for a reasonable accommodation. When the need is not obvious, an employer has the right to request documentation or demonstration of the need for the service animal and that the service animal is appropriately trained and will not disrupt the workplace. As with any other request for a reasonable accommodation, documentation demonstrating that an employee has a covered disability may come from a health care provider; however, an employer may need to consider documentation from other sources that explains the need for the service animal and that shows the animal is appropriately trained.
To assess the effectiveness of accommodating a service animal, employers have the option of implementing a trial period. An employer can allow an employee to bring the service animal to work on a trial basis to see if allowing the service animal is an effective reasonable accommodation and does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. There is no guidance or set time frame for a trail period under the law, but the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) suggests that a one to six week period should probably be enough time to properly assess the impact of accommodating a service animal.
The issue of requiring certification or insurance for service animals is not explicitly addressed by the ADA. Employers should exercise caution in requesting such documentation, considering that not all service animal training groups provide certifications, and online certifications may lack credibility. Additionally, insurance coverage may not absolve the employer of liability in case of an incident, making this documentation less relevant in the assessment of accommodation effectiveness.
Instead of relying on certifications and insurance, employers are encouraged to allow a demonstration or trial period for the service animal. This approach enables employers to identify any specific issues and assess the practicality of the accommodation without unnecessary administrative hurdles.
While employers have the right to choose among effective accommodations, the unique benefits that service animals provide, such as security, independence, and confidence, may make finding alternative accommodations challenging. As such, it is recommended that when possible an employer should give preference to an employee’s request to use a service animal in the workplace.
Navigating requests for a service animal as a reasonable accommodation can be challenging for employers. Employers should make sure that they follow the interactive process with these types of requests just like they would any other ADA-related requests. As always, NAE is available to assist any member who is working through a request for a service animal as a reasonable accommodation.
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