We’ve been getting more and more questions about service animals in the workplace, both from employers and people with disabilities who use service animals. One of the questions we frequently get is whether employers must automatically allow an employee to bring a service animal to work or whether it’s an accommodation that the employee must request. Most employers believe it’s an accommodation that must be requested, while conversely, some employees believe they should just be able to show up with the service animal, like they do in public places such as stores, restaurants, and movie theaters. When we explain that employment rules differ from public access rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and that bringing a service animal to work, in most cases, is an accommodation and therefore must be requested, we often get the following question:
I choose to use a service animal to overcome my disability-related limitations, just like someone else with a disability might choose to use a mobility aid or a hearing aid. Why do I have to ask permission to bring my service animal to work, but my coworkers who use, for example, wheelchairs don’t have to ask permission to bring their wheelchairs to work?
The answer is that most employers have no-animals-in-the-workplace policies, but very few have no-wheelchairs-in-the-workplace policies. Therefore, employees with service animals must ask the employer to consider modifying the no-animals policy as an accommodation instead of just violating the policy without permission. Of course, if an employer does not have a no-animals policy and lets other employees bring in animals, then an employee with a disability should be able to just show up with a service animal without getting permission.
In case you’re wondering, I have seen employers with no-wheelchairs-in-the-workplace policies, for example in some manufacturing plants or laboratory settings with cleanrooms. In laboratory settings, the problem is typically about the difficulty of sterilizing the wheelchair; cleanrooms must be free from contaminants. In some manufacturing plants, the problem is that the wheelchair can create a spark that could cause an explosion. In these situations, employees who use wheelchairs cannot just show up with the wheelchair; they must let the employer know that they use a wheelchair and ask that the employer consider accommodations that would enable them to work safely.
So it’s not that employers are treating you differently because you choose to use a service animal; the difference has to do with standard, workplace policies.