Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace – HR Guide
Emotional support animals have been shown to be extremely beneficial for people who suffer from a wide range of emotional or mental disabilities. However, more people are increasingly trying to bring their pets to work under the guise of emotional service pets. The problem is that some people are declaring their pets as emotional support pets, even when this isn’t the case.
But what is a dog, for instance, has been trained to sense an anxiety attack, and then act to help the person? In this instance, if the dog has been trained to avoid or lessen the severity of an attack, then they are classified as a service animal.
In a similar case, if the dog’s presence is just to provide some comfort only through their presence, then the dog is not classified as a service animal.
So, what are the rules for bringing a pet to work as an emotional service animal? Let’s take a look! But first, let’s take a look at the difference between ESA (emotional support animals) and service animals.
Difference Between ESA & Service Animals
An ESA is an emotional support animal; their main purpose is to be a companion for their pet parent. On the other hand, service animals have been trained to do specific tasks. Service dogs are generally trained to help someone who has a disability (physical, psychiatric, sensory, intellectual or mental disabilities). ESAs are usually not trained to perform tasks and are often just there to be a companion.
This is the main distinction between service animals and emotional support animals.
ADA Emotional Support Animal
When it comes to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), employers need to make “reasonable accommodation” for employees and applicants who have disabilities. What are reasonable accommodations? These are changes that may require a job be done in a different way to accommodate a person’s disability, without causing undue hardship to the employer.
The changes would allow the person with the disability to effectively perform their work. When it comes to stress and anxiety, these do quality as disabilities that must be accommodated. However, the ADA makes distinctions between ESAs and service animals.
Under the ADA, if an employee makes a request to bring a service animal to work, then the request must be considered. Allowing the employee to have a service animal at work would be considered a reasonable accommodation, unless there are safety issues involved.
The ADA only applies to service animals. So, how should a request to bring an ESA to work be dealt with?
EEOC Emotional Support Animal Ruling
Back in 2017, a trucking company came under fire for not hiring a qualified applicant who needed an emotional support dog to accompany him wherever he went. The case was EEOC v. CRST International, and was filed on March 2, 2017. The EEOC is the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible to watch over federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.
The potential job applicant’s name was Leon LaFerriere, and he was a Navy vet who suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He applied to become a driver for CRST, a trucking company. Mr. LaFerriere successfully completed the company’s truck driving school but was later denied being considered for employment when he disclosed that he would need his emotional support dog to accompany him for work. The company, a that time, had rules about no pets traveling with their drivers, and so denied LaFerriere employment.
Mr. LaFerriere’s psychiatrist, according to the lawsuit, prescribed an emotional support animal to help him deal with this PTSD. The case eventually led CRST to back Mr. LaFerriere backpay, and compensation for emotional pain and suffering, along with punitive damages.
So, while the ADA does not explicitly cover an emotional support animal, according to the EEOC ruling, employers must consider requests from employees about their need to bring an ESA to work with them.
Emotional Support Animal Workplace Policy
As a result, how should a business accommodate such a request if an employee requests permission to bring an emotional support animal to work?
HR experts recommend that employers treat this type of request similar to requests to bring a service animal to work. It’s a good idea to ask for documentation on the disability, which should also document how allowing the animal to come to work would help the employee.
In addition, it’s also a good idea to contact legal counsel to see if an ESA is a reasonable accommodation, or if there may be alternatives that would be work. Remember that each situation is unique, and so each request must be considered on its own.
It can also be helpful to develop a policy on exactly what steps need to be followed for each request to bring an emotional support animal to work. This way, everyone will know the procedures and steps that must be followed on such an important issue.
How to Request Permission to Bring Your Emotional Support Animal to Work
First, to qualify your animal companion as an ESA, you’ll need a diagnosis of a health issue that’s considered a disability. This diagnosis must come from a doctor, psychologist, or other qualified medical professional who is able to diagnose and treat mental health issues. Then, they must state in the documentation that you need an emotional support animal.
Next, you’ll be ready to discuss this issue with your employer. Keep in mind your employer will have some questions, and you’ll need to have answers to these questions. They may ask questions about how the animal will need to be cared for during the day and more.
To answer questions, be sure to have a routine for your ESAs care during the day planned. This would include feeding, potty brakes, where your pet would go potty, water and food bowl placement, etc. In addition, you’ll need to keep in mind that there may be people in the workplace who are afraid of your pet, or who may suffer from severe allergies to type of ESA you have. You’ll need to keep their needs in mind, too.
Next, make sure to have a recent record of your pet’s visit to the vet. Have a record showing any required vaccinations that have been done, including rabies and others.
It’s a good idea to be familiar with the ADA and what it covers. This way you’ll know your rights. Then it’s also a good idea to review your company’s handbook and read about policies dealing with how to properly request reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Keep in mind that any reasonable request for accommodation may not cause hardship for your employer.
All the homework and research you can do ahead of discussing before you talk with your employer will give you more advantages, plus you’ll know your rights and have the documentation that may be required by your employer.
Emotional Support Animal Laws by State
As part of your research, it can be helpful to also learn the laws of your state in regards to emotional support animals. Here’s a list you can check.
Here, you’ll want to see exactly how ESAs are defined. For example, let’s take a look at Minnesota’s laws governing ESAs. Under Minnesota laws, they go by the ADA’s definition of what a service dog is, not an ESA. They provide examples of duties a service dog may perform such as:
- Hearing dogs: alert their handlers (pet parent) to sounds, including alarms, doorbells, etc.
- Guide dogs: help the blind or visually impaired to get around safely.
- Psychiatric service animals: help their handlers (pet parents) manage mental and emotional disabilities by interrupting self-harming behaviors, remind them to take medicine, providing calming pressure during panic or anxiety attacks, etc.
- Allergen alert animals: alert their handlers (pet parents) to foods and other substances that can be dangerous.
These dogs have all been specially trained—this is important, because the law does not definitively cover emotional support animals.
This is one example—but you can see how definitions and explicit coverage are important in the law when doing your research.
Keep in mind that even if the ESA is not covered in the law, which doesn’t mean you can be denied from having your emotional support animal at work.
During this process, it may also be helpful to seek out legal counsel for advice on how to approach your employer with the request for reasonable accommodation of your ESA.
Emotional Support Animal Registration
You may see many websites that advertise ESA registration; however, these are not legal sites when it comes to declaring your pet as an emotional support animal. The best way to have your pet certified as an ESA is to obtain a letter from your mental healthcare provider stating that you need an ESA and that your animals is an emotional support animal. The document should also include why you need an ESA.
If you’re not currently under the care of a mental healthcare provider, there are services that can put you in contact with a registered mental healthcare professional. They may interview you and then write a letter certifying you need an ESA and that your pet is an ESA. This is a service that, of course, carries a fee. However, the best option is to see your regular healthcare professional for such documentation.
While ESA laws are not always clear, employers should discuss the options with their employers should they make such a request. In this case, it’s always beneficial to have legal counsel and have a policy in place to cover such instance.
If you’re an employee who would like to request permission to bring your emotional support animal to work, do your homework, have the proper documentation and you may be granted your request, if this doesn’t present a hardship for your employer.