More and more employers have grown relaxed about allowing certain things in the workplace, like casual dress codes and flexible scheduling. These reflect a growing concern employers have over their employees’ comfort, convenience and emotional well-being.
In that same vein, more employers are now letting pets—usually dogs—accompany their owners in the workplace. This can be an extremely attractive incentive for pet owners, as spending time with pets has been shown to make people feel better. Also, bringing pets to work eliminates the need to find pet sitters or some other way of tending to pets throughout the workday. However, bringing animals into the workplace also brings with it some major risks.
Safety Concerns for Pets and People
No matter how well-trained they might be, pets can be unpredictable. All work environments have the potential of introducing a distraction that could send pets running around the office, posing a potential trip hazard. If they feel threatened or afraid, even “good” pets might attack. And if there are other pets present in the workplace, employees might find themselves caught in the middle of dangerous animal competition.
It’s important to remember that the workplace might not be safe for the animals themselves. All workplaces have potential environmental hazards. Manufacturing facilities, construction sites, workplaces that use dangerous chemicals or any workplace that uses heavy machinery could pose a serious threat to pets, especially if they are allowed to roam free.
Finally, there are certain workplaces—health care facilities, laboratories or facilities that prepare food and beverages—where the mere presence of pets could create an unsafe environmental hazard. If that pet threatens the health and safety of patients or customers, it might be best if they stayed away from the workplace.
Health and Comfort
Even though many people might enjoy having pets around the office, it’s important to remember that other employees might not be as enthusiastic about sharing their workspace with pets. Some of your employees may suffer from allergies or asthma—conditions which could make sharing the same space with animals uncomfortable, if not dangerous to their health. Symptoms could be mild, like a runny nose or itchy eyes. In other cases, rashes, hives and difficulty breathing could all be allergic responses to having animals present.
In such cases, employers should consider ways of accommodating employees with allergies or asthma. This could include designating the affected employee’s workspace a pet-free area, or making sure that common areas—like restrooms, conference rooms and cafeterias—are free from pets as well.
Additionally, it’s worth remembering that not all employees will have the same view of pets. While some may find having animals in the workplace relaxing or comforting, others might experience fear or anxiety. Plenty of people have had poor experiences with animals in the past, and allowing pets in the workplace could recall those feelings, increasing workplace stress and decreasing productivity.
Service and Support Animals
When establishing a pet policy, remember that there’s a difference between pets and service animals. Even if your company decides to restrict or ban pets in the workplace, you may have an obligation to allow service and support animals, depending on local or state laws and the type of work environment.
A service animal, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is any dog (or occasionally, a miniature horse) that has been 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. Those tasks often include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving a dropped item, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication or pushing an elevator button.
Service animals are required because of an individual’s disability and have been trained to perform specific tasks to aid that individual. As such, service animals are not pets and cannot be excluded under the provisions of a “no pets” policy. Doing so could constitute discrimination because of a disability and leave an employer exposed to possible litigation.
If you also have employees with allergies or asthma, it is the employer’s responsibility to make accommodations for both employees with the service animals and employees with asthma or allergies. Doing so may be a bit tricky, but employers should make reasonable efforts to accommodate these employee needs.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals or comfort animals are often used as therapy animals as part of medical treatment. While these animals may bring employees comfort or emotional support, they have not received specific training to assist with tasks, and, therefore, are not considered service animals under the ADA.
While an employee’s rights regarding the use of an emotional support animal is not protected by the ADA, many state and local governments have outlined rights and restrictions governing the presence of emotional support animals in the workplace. Before drafting a pet policy, consult with legal counsel to make sure you’re abiding by all applicable laws.
Employers must be careful when inquiring about service or emotional support animals. If the service that the animal provides is obvious, employers should not ask questions—doing so could be considered discrimination.
However, if the animal provides no obvious service and the employee’s disability isn’t readily apparent, an employer may request documentation to establish the existence of a disability and how the animal helps the individual perform his or her job. Again, before making any inquiries about an employee’s service animal or disability, it’s best to consult with legal counsel.
Service and Support Animals
As you draft your company’s pet policy, there can be a lot of risks to take into consideration. Whatever you decide, know you can count on Tanner, Ballew and Maloof, Inc. to offer you the guidance—and the coverage—you need to keep your employees and your company safe.