Good Boy! Stay Current with California Workplace Laws Regarding Service Dogs and Support Animals

Most California employers, regardless of their policies about bringing pets or companion animals to work, must allow service dogs and emotional support animals, unless it would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. As these animals are allowed under anti-disability discrimination laws, it’s smart for employers to get it right.

California's Fair Employment and Housing Act protects job applicants and employees from discrimination in the workplace due to a physical or mental medical disorder that is disabling, potentially disabling or perceived to be disabling or potentially disabling. This can require the employer to make an accommodation allowing employees to have service dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and emotional support animals with them while they work, regardless of the employer’s policy about pets in the workplace.

Employers with five or more employees are subject to the California law covering service animals. Federal law applies to private employers with 15 or more employees, and public employers of any size.

While service dogs require specific training, emotional support animals do not. Where the disability is not evident, employers can ask employees for a note from a care provider (this person does not need to be a medical doctor) certifying that the employee has a disability, and that the animal is part of their ongoing care, and that an accommodation to allow the animal to stay with the employee is required.

Employers are limited in the questions they can ask about the employee’s medical condition or disability. They can ask if the dog is trained to provide a specific task that assists the employee. Employees should not be forced to demonstrate the animal’s training or ability, or further disclose information about their condition or treatment.

Determining whether the animal’s presence causes an “undue hardship” on employers can be tricky business. Typically, this is related to any logistical difficulties or costs associated with having the animal accompany the employee, given the employer’s size, structure and resources. As a request for a service animal should be treated as any other request for accommodation, an employer cannot automatically say “no” without engaging in an interactive process with the employee about the accommodation. There are almost always solutions possible when each side engages in good faith discussions.

Engaging with the employee on how to introduce the animal to co-workers is also smart. Some co-workers may have allergies or phobias. This is not a reason to ban a service animal, but is a reason to work together to find a solution that works for all. Additionally, it is smart to engage the employee on any education fellow employees may need as to how to treat the animal and allow it to do its job properly.

Service dogs and emotional support animals need to display proper behavior in the workplace. Excessive barking or aggression, for example, should be discussed immediately, before it becomes a wider issue. If conversations become prickly, consult legal counsel immediately.