Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace
August 10, 2023
By: Colin A. Walker
What should an employer do when an employee asks to bring an animal to work in connection with a health issue? The answer depends in part on whether the animal is a service animal or an emotional support animal (sometimes called a “comfort animal” or “companion animal”).
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is an animal that has been trained to perform a specific task to assist a person with a disability. Typically, service animals are dogs. Under some circumstances, however, a service animal can be a mini-horse. No other species may serve as service animals. The ADA, and many state laws, require employers to consider allowing a service animal in the workplace as an accommodation for a disability. Under Colorado law, employers must allow service animals in the workplace unless the employer can show an undue burden. See C.R.S. § 24-34-803(3).
There is no definition in the ADA for emotional support animal. The term, however, is commonly understood to mean an animal which provides comfort to someone with an emotional disability. Any domesticated animal may qualify as an emotional support animal. The ADA does not specifically require employers to allow emotional support animals in the workplace.
The ADA, and many state laws, require employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. The ADA requires the employee and employer to engage in an interactive process, basically a good faith discussion, regarding accommodations. The employer needs not make an accommodation which is unreasonable or that causes an undue hardship on the business. The employer needs not eliminate an essential function of the job and needs not agree to the accommodation the employee requests if there is another equally viable accommodation.
With this in mind, how should an employer handle a request by an employee to bring an emotional support animal to work? Our recommendation is to treat it as a request for an accommodation, beginning with the interactive process. In some situations having an animal in the workplace could be an undue hardship, such as where health regulations prohibit animals. Obviously, a dangerous animal could impose an undue hardship. Employers are well within their rights to inquire about whether the animal is dangerous or otherwise likely to cause problems in the workplace. However, outright rejection of a request for an emotional support animal is usually not the best approach and could result in liability for failing to accommodate a disability.