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Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

March 23, 2017

By: Heidi C. Quan

Support Animals in the Workplace

California employers are familiar with service dogs as a reasonable accommodation for employees and applicants with disabilities. But, what about “support” animals?  In 2013, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) required California employers to allow “assistive animals” in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation. Assistive animals include service dogs, but also support animals that provide “emotional or other support to a person with a disability, including but not limited to, traumatic brain injuries or mental disabilities, such as major depression.”  (California Code of Regulations, Title 2, Section 11065(a)(D).) These animals no longer need to be specifically trained or certified.

As with any other accommodation, an employer is required to engage in an individualized good faith interactive process to identify and implement an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. Engaging in a good faith interactive process requires timely good faith communication to truly explore whether the employee needs the reasonable accommodation and how they can be accommodated. An employer may require a medical certification from a health care provider stating that the employee has a disability and explaining why the employee requires the assistive animal as an accommodation. However, remember that employers are prohibited from inquiring about the underlying medical cause of the disability.

You have now determined that your employee needs an assistance animal and the accommodation is reasonable, effective and not overly burdensome. Does this mean that they can bring a support snake, rat or monkey to work? (No disparagement intended for snakes, rats or monkeys.) Of course not. Employers are not required to accommodate any animal requested by an employee with a disability. An employer may require the following requirements for an assistive animal in the workplace:

-    Animal must be free from offensive odors and display habits appropriate for the work environment (elimination of urine and feces);
-    Animals must not engage in behavior that endangers the health or safety of the employee with a disability or others in the workplace; and
-    Animals must be trained to provide assistance for the disability. 

Practical Tips:
~ California employers should review the FEHA regulations and revise their policies and practices as necessary.
~ Train supervisors to ensure that requests for support animals are treated and analyzed as all other requests for reasonable accommodations.
~ Do not summarily dismiss any request for a support animal, especially if the animal is exotic or unusual.

Currently, airlines are seeing an increase in requests to fly with “support animals” and employers may see more requests as well. These requests also give rise to additional issues involving other employees, such as, how to deal with the allergies of other employees, if there are areas of the workplace where the support animal would be prohibited, or how to deal with a co-worker’s fear of the particular animal. When in doubt, employers should consult with counsel before handling any unknown situation.