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Employers look for ways to hire and retain talented employees. They now offer work-from-home options, summer Friday schedules, and other perks. Some companies even allow a "take your dog to work day.“ Pet-friendly workplaces are rising in response to employee demand.
The benefits of pets are well documented and may contribute to increased job satisfaction and a positive work environment. It's why companies like Amazon, Ben & Jerry's, and Etsy are dog-friendly and let you bring your dog to work.
However, not everyone is a dog lover, and not all workplaces have pet-friendly policies. In recent news, Hobby Lobby is under fire for alleged employment discrimination for banning an employee's service dog. In this case, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against Hobby Lobby for its unlawful violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In this lawsuit, a Hobby Lobby employee suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression acquired a service dog. She requested permission to bring her dog to work. The company denied her request, even though Hobby Lobby allows customers with service animals in their stores. A few weeks later, the employee brought her dog to work but was sent home and subsequently fired for “job abandonment."
The EEOC brought the federal lawsuit to reinstate the employee, in addition to back pay and punitive damages. The suit alleges that Hobby Lobby denied the employee's request because it would be an “undue hardship" on the business.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, prohibits private and state employers from discriminating against people with disabilities. It also requires employers to accommodate an employee with a disability if the accommodation is not an “undue hardship" on the employer.
A disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act can be mental or physical and impairs a “major life activity," like walking, seeing, or talking.
However, there are exceptions to the ADA. First and foremost, it only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees.
Secondly, employers are not required to provide accommodations when doing so presents undue hardship on the business.
For example, airlines can refuse accommodations to a blind pilot because there are significant safety concerns. But a blind employee who does data entry from home may be able to have accommodations, such as a braille keyboard or other assistive technology.
There can be a grey area of what constitutes “undue hardship" with regard to allowing support animals. If an employer can show that an animal's presence would be disruptive or affect other employees (for example, those who are allergic to dogs) they may not have to accommodate a service animal.
In the EEOC v. Hobby Lobby case, the employer claimed there could be safety hazards “because someone could be allergic to the dog, someone might trip over the dog, or the dog might break something." However, Hobby Lobby allows customers to bring support animals into their stores. Therefore, Hobby Lobby may have to prove how accommodating an employee's service animal is an “undue hardship" to their business, but accommodating a customer's service animal is not.
Courts weigh several factors in “undue hardship" cases:
So, a mom-and-pop pizza shop that operates as an LLC may have more of a hardship than a large corporation.
There is a distinct difference between service animals and support animals. Previously service animals were only defined as “dogs." However, in 2010, the definition of a service animal expanded to include other “domestic animals individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability." Service animals are trained to pull wheelchairs, assist blind people with navigation, and even remind someone to take their medication.
Pet owners know a support animal provides therapeutic comfort and emotional support. This was especially so during the pandemic, when pet ownership increased. However, although your French bulldog reduces your stress level, if it is not trained to assist you with a recognized disability, it is not a service animal.
What if your workplace is not a dog-friendly office? The best way to ask your employer for a service animal accommodation is by writing a letter to your employer requesting the accommodation. In the letter:
It is then the employer's responsibility to accommodate your request or give you reasons why your request is an “undue hardship." If you have difficulty getting reasonable accommodations from your employer, a local employment lawyer can help.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.