New regulations related to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) went into effect on April 1, 2016. Among the various additions, which touch on a broad range of discrimination issues in employment, is a discussion about support animals as a reasonable accommodation in the workplace.
As a servant to my 3 dogs and lawyer who has worked on dog bite cases, this was of particular interest to me. The new regulations specifically discuss assistive and support animals in the area of disability accommodation and provides that an assistive animal, including support animals, may constitute a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances.
What is an “Assistive Animal”?
According to the new regulations, an “assistive animal” is defined as an animal that is necessary as a reasonable accommodation. These include: guide dogs for the visually impaired, signal dogs for the hearing impaired, and trained service dogs that meet the requirements of the Civil Code related to training and licensing. Additionally, a “support dog” or other animal that provides emotional, cognitive, or other similar support to a person with a disability, including, but not limited to, traumatic brain injuries or mental disabilities such as major depression.
Although a guide, signal, or service dog must be specifically trained to qualify as an assistive animal, support animals do not require any specific training.
May Employers Put Restrictions on Bringing an Assistive Animal to Work?
Yes. Employers may impose some requirements on assistive animals, including support animals. For example, employers may require that an animal be free from offensive odors, display habits appropriate for the workplace, and not endanger the health or safety of the disabled employee or others. This list is not exhaustive so restrictions that will keep other employees and your customers safe would likely be justifiable.
UPDATE: In the year since this post was originally published, more people are using animals for a broad range of support, including emotional support. This has lead to numerous litigation as people push boundaries for accommodations on airplanes, at work, and in housing beyond the standard idea of a support animal (dogs to assist the blind and the hard of hearing for example). This has lead to litigation and the continued development of rules and definitions of the threshold that an animal has to reach in order to be considered a legal assistive animal. Read more.
Employers who are subject to FEHA have a duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability. Employers are advised to conduct an individualized analysis reached through the interactive process to determine whether the presence of an assistive animal would be a reasonable accommodation that doesn’t unduly burden the business. Business should also determine and clearly communicate the minimum restrictions it will place on the presence of assistive animals.
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