Service Animals in the Workplace

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its Oregon counterpart (ORS 659A.001 et. seq.) prohibit employment practices that discriminate on the basis of disability. Disability discrimination may include the disabled employee’s use of a “service animal” at work.

To Which Employers Does the Law Apply?

The ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees; the Oregon statute applies to Oregon employers with 6 or more employees.

Disabled Employees and Service Animals

As a threshold matter, an employee must be disabled, within the meaning of law, before the employee can request the presence of a service animal at work. A disabled employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Allowing a disabled employee to use a service animal at work may be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and Oregon law.

What is a “Service Animal”?

Under the ADA, only a dog can be a “service animal” (and, in some limited exceptions, a miniature horse may qualify as a service animal). Oregon state law refers to a service animal as an “assistance animal” and does not limit assistance animals to dogs.

Under both the ADA and Oregon state law, the animal must be individually trained to do a task or service that is directly related to the employee’s disability, i.e., a nexus must exist between service animal and the disability.

For example, if an untrained dog provides “comfort” to an employee who has an anxiety condition, the employer may not be required to accommodate the employee’s service animal at work because the animal has not been individually trained to perform a specific task. In other words, “therapy animals,” “companion animals,” or “emotional support animals” which may be therapeutic may not qualify as a “service animal” or an “assistance animal.” However, for example, if a dog is trained to remind the employee to take medication to avoid the impact of having an anxiety attack, the dog could qualify as a service animal under both the ADA and Oregon law.

Each situation will be fact specific.

How Does an Employer Know if a Service Animal is a Reasonable Accommodation?

If the disability and or the need for a service animal is not clear, an employer may request documentation to verify the disability, the specific need for a service animal, and the animal’s training.

Does an Employer Have a Right to Refuse to Allow a Service Animal at the Office?

Yes, in limited circumstances. An employer has a right to refuse to allow any animal in the workplace that does not behave, such as barking uncontrollably, running away from the handler, not being housebroken, or behaving in any kind of manner that is disruptive to business.

Need more information? Contact Gordon L. Osaka, Attorney at Law, P.C.