A balancing act for employers: service animals and allergies in the workplace

This week’s question comes from Brian T., who asks:

Q: I work in an office with a fairly liberal policy on pets in the workplace. While I love animals, I am unfortunately allergic to certain types of longhaired dogs and cats. A co-worker of mine, who has a physical disability, brings his service dog to work every day to help him navigate around the office. The dog is very sweet, but I often find myself having an allergic reaction when I have to interact with this co-worker or walk by his office. Although I want to be sensitive and respectful of my co-worker’s needs, I also need to be able to work without having a serious allergic reaction. What are my options?

A: Thank you for your question, Brian. You raise a number of valid concerns and, under both California and Federal law, your employer will have to negotiate them with care. First, it is important to note that it sounds like your co-worker is utilizing a service animal, rather than an emotional support animal. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability. On the other hand, federal law defines an “emotional support animal” by exclusion: as any animal used to assist, support, or provide service to a person with disabilities, but which does not meet the stricter definition of a service animal.

Both the ADA and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in employment and housing matters. As part of their anti-discrimination requirements, both the FEHA and the ADA mandate that employers must extend reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities in order to allow them to perform the essential functions of their job, so long as doing so does not pose an undue hardship on the employer. Both laws regard bringing a service animal to work as a possible reasonable accommodation under appropriate circumstances.

In the case of your co-worker, it sounds like he uses a service animal because his job requires him to get up and move around the office and his own physical limitations make doing so difficult. Therefore, unless having the animal at work presents undue hardship, your employer is likely required by law to allow him to utilize a service animal at the office as a reasonable accommodation to aid in his mobility.

Adding the concern of your allergies into the mix, however, makes things more complicated.  Having a serious allergy that prevents or hinders you from performing the essential functions of your job is also a valid concern, and could potentially qualify as a disability deserving of reasonable accommodations. As such, your employer will likely have to perform a balancing act in order to make sure that all employees with disabilities are treated fairly under the law.

The law requires your employer to engage in a good faith, interactive process with you, as well as your co-worker, to arrive at a lawful solution that works for both parties. This will likely require some creativity and flexibility. The particular accommodations discussed during the interactive process will depend on the severity of your allergies, the extent of your co-worker’s need for the specific accommodation of a service animal, and the unique environment in which you both work. 

One solution might involve eliminating in-person contact between you and the service animal by simply relocating your workspace to the opposite side of the office and arranging to use separate bathrooms and common spaces. If physically separating you from your co-worker would create an undue hardship, as may be the case in a small office environment, your employer should still make reasonable efforts to minimize your exposure. This could mean adjusting each of your work schedules, temporarily removing the service animal at any time when you and your coworker have to attend meetings together, providing options for one or both of you to work remotely, and/or allowing you to wear protective equipment such as an allergen mask.

If your allergies are so severe that even working in the same environment as the service animal present serious health risks for you, speak to your employer about these concerns immediately. To ensure that your legal rights are fully protected, you should contact an employment attorney, such as those at the Dolan Law Firm PC, to help you navigate the situation. 

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions and topics for future articles to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

We serve clients across the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Our work is no recovery, no fee or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.

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