Service Animals and Employee Mental Health

Karim Lakhani

Karim Lakhani is a student at Harvard Law School.

Mental health conditions are a growing concern for a number of veterans.   According to the Rand Center for Military Health Policy Research, about 20% of veterans that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from a mental health issue, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.  Leon Laferriere is one such veteran.  His PTSD and anxiety qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as they are mental impairments that substantially limit major life activities, including his ability to sleep.  Laferriere’s psychiatrist prescribed him a support animal that is trained to help him control his anxiety and wake him up from PTSD induced nightmares.  In 2015, Laferriere applied to work as a freight driver for CRST International, one of the country’s largest transportation companies.   Aware of their “no pet” policy, he hoped the company would be willing to accommodate the use of his service dog.  The company denied Laferriere’s request, and earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit, alleging Laferriere was discriminated against because of his disability and unfairly denied a reasonable accommodation, in violation of the ADA.

Laferriere’s discrimination claims are not unique.  According to a Bloomberg BNA analysis of EEOC statistics, claims alleging bias against people with mental health conditions grew to their highest level in 2016, making up 23.3% of all disability related charges filed by the agency, a 40% increase since 2006.  One important way that employers can contribute to the fight against mental health bias in the workplace is by destigmatizing mental illness.  Welcoming service animals for employees suffering from a mental illness can be a powerful way for employers to do so.

ADA: Service Animals vs. Therapy Animals

The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  Employees that meet this requirement may, under Title I, request an accommodation—such as the use of a service animal at work—from their employer.  Although employers are not automatically required to allow service animals in the workplace, they must consider the reasonable accommodation request and must allow the use of a service animal unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.

While reviewing an accommodation request, employers may first look to whether the animal qualifies as a service animal.  ADA guidelines make a distinction between service animals, the provision of which may constitute a reasonable accommodation, and therapy animals, the need for which employers are not required to accommodate.  Service animals are dogs that have been trained to complete a specific task for those with a disability.  For mental health impairments, especially those suffered by veterans, service dogs can be trained to inspect rooms or patrol their perimeter to provide individuals with a sense of safety, alert individuals when others are approaching to prevent them from being startled, and remind those with depression to take their medicine.  Dogs need not be professionally trained to complete their assigned task nor must they be any particular breed, but they will not qualify under the law until their training is complete.

On the other hand, employers are not obligated to accommodate an employees’ need for therapy animals.  Therapy animals are dogs that provide comfort to those with disabilities, but are not trained to perform tasks in relation to an individual’s disability.  For example, if the mere presence of a dog prevents an individual from having an anxiety attack but is not trained to perform a task that may avoid or lessen the attack, the dog would only qualify as a therapy animal.

Employer Obligations

One concern employers may have is the impact of service animals on other employees.  Neither employees’ fear of dogs nor allergies may in and of themselves constitute undue hardship.  The Job Accommodation Network, a resource sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor, has outlined various steps employers can take to balance the needs of employees with service animals and coworkers that may have allergies.  For instance, employers can use air purifiers, add cleaning regiments, and provide flexibility to workspace, scheduling, and in-person communication, including arranging for employees to work remotely and holding meetings through video or teleconference.

Employers may also be required to make changes to the workplace that would enable an employee’s use of a service animal.  For example, in McDonald v. Department of Environmental Quality, the Montana Supreme Court found that an employer’s duty to make reasonable accommodations under the ADA did not end when it permitted an employee to bring her service animal to the workplace.  Instead, the court required the employer to address any barrier that may prevent the employee from effectively using her service animal, including modifying a floor surface that was slippery to the animal, making the animal nervous and reluctant to walk on it.

Employee Obligations

ADA guidelines impose additional obligations on employees with service animals.  One such requirement is the traditional obligation for employees to provide reasonable documentation that they in fact need an accommodation.  Specifically, employees may be required to show that their dog has been trained to complete a specific task, which often can be shown by the individual or organization that trained the service animal.  If the animal was self-trained, the employer may instead require the employee to demonstrate her need for the service animal.  Although the standard for what constitutes adequate documentation is not clear, the EEOC has previously issued determinations criticizing employers’ continued request for “unnecessary and superfluous information in order to act upon” requests for accommodation.

In addition, employees may be required to show that their service animal can function in their particular workplace without disrupting it.  Certain work environments have elements that could excite or confuse a service animal.  Although McDonald suggests employers may be obligated to remove barriers that stand in the way of employees’ use of service animals, employees must still ensure that their service animals are trained to not disrupt the workplace.

Employee Mental Health

In a given year, about one in five adults in America experience a mental health issue.  Mental health issues not only impact employees’ personal lives, but may also contribute to absenteeism, turnover, and poor work performance.  The World Health Organization estimates that mental health problems cause 200 million lost days workdays every year in America, and may cost employers more than $100 billion annually.

Although employer-provided insurance may cover mental health treatment, employees may be reluctant to seek support because of stigmatized attitudes towards those with mental health issues.  There are several steps employers can and should take to help destigmatize mental illness among their employees.  One such step is allowing service animals in the workplace for individuals whose mental conditions rise to the level of impairments and substantially limit one or more life activity.  Mental impairments, unlike physical disabilities, are not outwardly visible, and welcoming service animals is an important way for employers to render mental impairments visible and thereby to destigmatize it.  Service animals may provide individuals a safe point to start conversations around their mental health conditions and may encourage those with mental health concerns to admit that they may need professional assistance.


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