The popularity of emotional support or comfort animals—and the news stories about them—has grown dramatically in recent years. Different than specially trained service animals like Seeing Eye dogs, these animals typically are used to provide comfort and lessen the symptoms of their human companion’s emotional or mental health issue.
A plethora of headlines have documented interesting predicaments these animals and their humans have caused on flights, in airports and in residential situations. In one specific instance, there was a companion peacock that was denied entry onto a flight in January 2018 due to exceeding the airline’s size and weight restrictions. Earlier this year, in the world of residential property management, lawmakers and property managers aimed to crack down on what have been called bogus claims, stating some emotional support animal declarations are made simply to skirt pet fees in rental housing or on flights. When IREM visited Washington D.C. this March, residential property managers had this topic on the docket.
“As property managers have encountered more challenges with companion animals in the last few years, IREM has been working with legislators to urge HUD to release guidance on this important issue,” says Ted Thurn, IREM’s government affairs director.
As the requests to bring companion animals onto flights or into multifamily residences have increased, so have the appeals to bring them into the workplace, opening up a host of considerations and concerns for employers and the property managers responsible for the buildings the animals are entering.
Have Dog, Will Hire
Welcoming dogs or pets into the workplace is not a new phenomenon, and the trend of dog-friendly offices is growing. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 9 percent of workplaces in the U.S. were pet-friendly in 2018, an increase from 4 percent in 2014. If you are on the hunt for a “dog-friendly office” job in San Francisco, a recent LinkedIn Jobs search revealed more than 575 offerings. At Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, more than 6,000 dogs have the green light to accompany their human companions to work. Perks abound for these four-legged friends, with designated water fountains, plenty of treats and waste bags conveniently located outside.
One 2017 academic review looked at both the pros and cons of animals in the workplace. Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the research considered pets, emotional support animals and service animals. Potential benefits included social support, stress reduction and better job performance. On the other hand, possible disadvantages included risk of tripping over the animals and falling; animal aggression; fears, phobias and cultural sensitivities related to the animal in the workplace; as well as considering the wellbeing of the animal being brought into work.
This is where property management concerns might come in. Will the animal increase the wear and tear on the property? What if employees in nearby offices have allergies that are aggravated by the animal? Will this increase the cost of the property’s insurance? In the case of tenants/employers who want to provide a pet-friendly workplace, can the building charge a pet fee? Not to mention the question of where will the animal go for “bathroom breaks?”
Regardless of whether a job has a pet-friendly policy, any employer or property manager can find themselves faced with the question, “Can I bring my animal to work?”
Sometimes this request is for a service animal, which is clearly defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.” Tasks can include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication or pressing an elevator button, among other jobs.
But for assistance animals, also known as emotional support animals, there is more confusion and gray area. These companion animals are not clearly defined in the ADA and they do not have to be specially trained. However, these requests must be given the same consideration as a service animal, says Chloe Hecht, senior counsel and director of legal affairs at the National Association of REALTORS®.
Employers faced with this request must comply with the ADA, Hecht says.
Title I of the ADA states that employers must not discriminate against a qualified individual due to a disability. It also states that they must provide reasonable accommodation to persons with a disability unless providing the reasonable accommodation causes an undue hardship for the employer.
“A reasonable accommodation may be allowing a qualified individual with a disability to bring an animal to work with him or her,” she says.
When presented with an accommodation request, the employer must first confirm the employee is qualified and disabled, as defined under the ADA.
“A qualified employee must have the skills, education and other job-related requirements for the position,” Hecht says. “He or she must also be able to perform the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.”
“Disability” is broadly defined and includes a variety of physical or mental impairments.
Once it is determined that an employee meets these requirements, the employer must begin to actively consider the request and engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine if the request is a reasonable accommodation.
“The employer may ask for additional information from the employee or the employee’s medical provider in order to understand how the employee needs the animal and how bringing the animal would benefit the employee,” Hecht says. “The employer may want to meet with the employee and animal in person to see how the animal helps the employee.”
Although there is a variety of emotional support animal registries online, it is worth noting that these animals do not have to be registered, and a letter from a licensed therapist also is not required, Hecht notes.
Because each workplace and environment is different, it is imperative that the employer fully examines any potential issues caused by the animal’s presence.
“A reasonable accommodation in an office place may not be reasonable in a manufacturing plant,” Hecht points out.
She adds that employers should make continual progress in reviewing the request, and document all steps taken during the investigation.
Next, the employer may grant or deny the request based on the investigation.
“After completing the interactive process, the employer may decide to grant the request by allowing the animal to accompany the person at the workplace and making any other necessary accommodations, such as modifying the employee’s schedule to allow the employee to care for the animal; rearranging the work space for the animal and to address any co-workers’ allergies; and educating co-workers about how to treat the animal,” Hecht says.
In other cases, the interactive process may reveal that the animal’s presence in the workplace may create an undue hardship for the employer.
“Undue hardship may mean that the request is cost-prohibitive or the effects of the accommodation are too burdensome on the employer,” she says.
But an employer cannot deny the request without considering and proposing alternative accommodations that may meet the employee’s needs. For example, if allergies are a concern for an existing employee, the employer or manager can see if it is possible to move the employees apart or stagger their hours, Hecht says.
“If no such alternatives exist or the employee rejects the alternative reasonable accommodations proposed by the employer, the employer may be able to properly deny the request,” she says. “Ultimately, undue hardship is decided on a case-by-case basis and depends on various factors including the employee’s needs and the employer’s size, financial resources and types of operations.”
Individual state laws may offer more restrictions or direction, so it’s important to check. For example, Indiana’s code of law defines seven types of service animals: hearing animals, guide animals, assistance animals, seizure alert animals, mobility animals, psychiatry service animals and autism service animals.
And just because an employer has a pet-friendly policy in place, it does not preclude them from receiving a request for an animal outside of their pet policy.
“In that situation, the employer will need to engage in the interactive process I outlined when considering the employee’s individual accommodation request,” Hecht says.