Assistive Animals in the Workplace

    1. What is an “assistive animal”?

    An “assistive animal” provides support to an individual with a disability that allows her to more fully access her community and workplace. An assistive animal may support an individual with a disability by performing certain tasks. Examples of the uses of assistive animals include the following:
    • For individuals with mobility impairments, assistive animals can be trained to pull wheelchairs, brace their owners to sit, stand or balance; pick up and carry items; press buttons; go for help in the event of an emergency; and even assist with donning and doffing clothing.
    • Hearing dogs can assist individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing by alerting them to a telephoning ringing, alarm sounding or someone calling their name.
    • Psychiatric service dogs can perform tasks including interrupting their owner in the midst of a repetitive behavior or panic attack; retrieving medication in an emergency; or guiding a disoriented handler.
    • Service animals can even alert owners to oncoming seizures or low blood sugar, allowing the individual enough time to take preventative or safety-related measures prior to onset.
    The presence of an assistive animal may also provide emotional support to an individual with a disability.

    2. Are assistive animals allowed in the workplace?

    Assistive animals may be allowed in the workplace where they serve as a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability, either by performing a task or providing emotional support. A “reasonable accommodation” is an accommodation that enables an individual to perform the essential functions of her job and/or allows her to obtain the same benefits and privileges of employment as other workers. Although animals that provide only emotional support (i.e., are not task trained) are typically not permitted in public spaces, this same limitation does not necessarily apply in the employment context. The relevant issues that determine whether an assistive animal has access to the workplace are:
    • Whether the employee with a disability needs the animal to accommodate her disability;
    • Whether the animal would serve as an effective accommodation; and
    • Whether the animal is trained so as not to be disruptive to the work environment.

    3. What steps should I take if I want to bring an assistive animal to work?

    Although an assistive animal may be permitted in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation, an employer is not required to automatically allow the animal access without any prior notice or discussion. The employer and employee must first engage in the “interactive process,” during which both parties discuss the need for accommodation and whether the assistive animal best meets that need without causing an “undue hardship” for the employer. An employee should begin a conversation with her employer wherein she requests the reasonable accommodation of having her assistive animal at the workplace. When making this request, the employee should be prepared to explain to her employer the following:
    • That she has a disability (although she is not required to reveal her diagnosis);
    • That the service animal is an effective accommodation for this disability; and
    • The type of assistance that the service animal would provide at the workplace (such as a physical task or providing emotional support).
    An employer may request medical documentation to support the request for accommodation. A doctor’s letter containing the above three pieces of information should typically be sufficient. Again, the doctor need not reveal an employee’s diagnosis.

    4. Can an employer require me to provide documentation showing that my assistive animal is “certified” or professionally trained?

    No. Neither state nor federal law requires that an assistive animal be professionally trained, and there is no legitimate “certification” that certifies an animal as an assistive animal under state or federal law. And although an assistive animal must be trained well enough so as not to be disruptive in the workplace, an employer may not require proof of professional training.

    Your employer may, however, request medical certification from your doctor, certifying that you have a disability and need the assistive animal as a reasonable accommodation for your disability.

    5. Can an employer refuse my request to bring my assistive animal to work?

    There are a few situations in which an employer is allowed to deny an employee’s request to have their assistive animal at the workplace:
    • The employee cannot show a need for the assistive animal’s presence. If an employee and/or the employee’s health care provider cannot establish that the presence of the assistive animal will serve as an effective reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability, an employer may be able to refuse the request.
    • An equally effective alternative accommodation is available. Even where an employee can show a need for an accommodation, an employer may deny an employee’s request to have the employee’s assistive animal where an equally effective alternative accommodation is available. (However, employers may have limited success with this argument, as in many cases assistive animals are uniquely situated to accommodate the person with a disability by performing specific tasks or providing support that is not otherwise available.)
    • The animal would pose an undue hardship (a significant difficulty or expense, considering the employer’s resources) on the employer. The “undue hardship” defense can be difficult for an employer to prove because the burden must be significant.

    6. My employer denied my request to have my assistive animal at work because a coworker is allergic. Is that a valid reason for a denial?

    Not necessarily. The employer has a responsibility to make a good faith effort to accommodate both you and the employee with an allergy. The employer could take measures such as installing an air purifier, or assigning you and your assistive animal, or your allergic coworker, to a private, enclosed workspace.

    7. My employer said that some people in the office might be afraid of dogs. Is that a valid reason for a denial?

    No. The reason for the denial cannot be based on some unsubstantiated fear by unknown people.

    8. I work at a restaurant, and my employer says I cannot have an assistive animal at work because it would violate the health codes. Is this true?

    It depends. Generally, restaurant workers are prohibited from handling animals and animals are banned from areas used for food preparation. However, such employees are allowed to handle assistive animals, if they wash their hands properly after handling the animal. Assistive animals may be permitted in areas not used for food preparation.

    9. What do I do if my employer refuses to allow me to bring my assistive animal to work?

    If you believe that your employer has wrongfully denied you the ability to bring your assistive animal to work as a reasonable accommodation, there are several possible steps you could take. If your employer has at least 15 employees, you can file a charge of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 300 days of your employer’s refusal. For more information on how to file an EEOC charge, you can visit www.eeoc.gov. If your employer has at least five employees, you can file a charge of discrimination and failure to accommodate under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. You would need to file with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) within one year of your employer’s refusal. For more information on how to file a DFEH charge, you can visit www.dfeh.ca.gov.

DISCLAIMER

This Fact Sheet is intended to provide accurate, general information regarding legal rights relating to employment in California. Yet because laws and legal procedures are subject to frequent change and differing interpretations, Legal Aid at Work cannot ensure the information in this Fact Sheet is current nor be responsible for any use to which it is put. Do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney or the appropriate agency about your rights in your particular situation.