Ask the Experts: Accommodating Disabilities in the Workplace
Question: Our employee with a disability has asked to bring his service dog to work, but we have two employees in the office who are allergic to dogs. What can we do to accommodate everyone’s needs?
Answer: According to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), if the service animal has been trained to help with the employee’s medical needs, then the employee has a right to ask that the service animal be allowed to accompany him or her to work as a reasonable accommodation. Like any other accommodation, the employee may be required to provide documentation of the need from a healthcare provider or other treating provider or organization. If the accommodation is granted, he or she may then be required to ensure the animal is not disruptive, is with him or her at all times, and is properly groomed and free of parasites or other health issues. Importantly, as with any other accommodation, an employer must engage in an interactive process with an employee who requests an accommodation for a disability to determine if the accommodation is reasonable and will not impose an undue hardship for the business. This includes individuals who need a service animal. In this case, the situation is more complicated because of the allergy issue with other employees.
There are a number of accommodations you can provide for employees with allergies, including, but not limited to:
- Moving the employee to a private/enclosed workplace.
- Changing the office air filtration to limit pet dander.
- Providing air filter fans at desks.
- Allowing flexible scheduling to avoid direct interaction.
Other accommodation ideas are available through the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s Job Accommodation Network. Additionally, an employer may require that an employee with allergies provide certification of a disability (the allergy) for an accommodation to be granted. Essentially, the interactive process should be treated in a similar manner for the individual with allergies as the individual needing the service animal.
If there is an undue hardship in allowing the service animal, an employee may be required to accept alternate accommodations from the employer and/or the employer may deny the request. An undue hardship is an action that presents significant difficulty, disruption, or expense in relation to the size of the employer, its resources, and the nature of its operations or that would require violation of safety or health laws and regulations. In determining whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on an employer, the following factors may be considered:
- Nature and net cost of the needed accommodation.
- Overall financial resources of the facility or facilities involved in the provision of the reasonable accommodation, the number of persons employed at such facility, and the effect on expenses and resources.
- Overall financial resources of the employer, overall size of the employer’s business with respect to the number of employees, and the number, type, and location of the facilities.
- Employer’s type of operation, including the composition, structure, and functions of the workforce.
- Impact of the accommodation upon the operation of the facility, including the impact on the ability of other employees to perform their duties and the impact on the facility’s ability to conduct business.
All options must be exhausted before determining an undue hardship, and such a determination should be made with legal counsel to minimize risk.
Finally, you should have policies and guidelines in place for service animals. This helps define the interactive process, as well as the expectations for the animal in the workplace, including how to deal with employees with fears or allergies. Like any other accommodation, these issues must be examined, and the result will vary based on the workplace, any applicable state laws, and the facts and circumstances specifically related to the accommodation.