By Garrett C. Parks
As millennials continue to negotiate workplace perks, such as flexible hours, gourmet cafeterias, gym memberships, and on-demand laundry services, employers may be confronted with employees who seek to bring pets to work for convenience, companionship, or to promote creativity and calmness. Beyond providing reasonable accommodations (absent showing an undue hardship) for disabled employees with services animals, here are some considerations for employers regarding voluntary pet policies.
Pros and Cons
Recent studies and articles advocate for pet-friendly workplaces, citing a number of benefits to companies and workers. Benefits include increased worker morale, co-worker bonding, attracting and retaining talent, and lower stress coupled with higher productivity.
On the other hand, permitting pets in the workplace presents a number of issues. For example, according to a leading asthma and allergy organization, as many as three in ten people suffer from pet allergies, meaning someone at work is likely allergic to Fido or Fifi. A significant number of people also have pet phobias, for example, resulting from a traumatic dog bite incident. Other concerns may include workplace disruption due to misbehaved animals, mess, and time-wasting.
Five Tips for Effective Pet Policies
If the Pros outweigh the Cons, the next question is: “[w]hat should I put in a pet policy?” Here are five things to consider when preparing a pet-policy:
Ask Around: Offer employees an opportunity to provide feedback before implementing a pet-policy. Doing this allows the company time to confirm employee interest in the idea and address any concerns or issues before employees bring pets to work.
Set a Schedule: Establish a schedule for pet-friendly work days, e.g., once a week or month, to provide structure and predictability so that the company and employees can plan, either to bring their pets (or allergy medicine) or to work remotely, for days when pets may be at the office or jobsite.
Provide Pet Space: Designate certain areas as pet-friendly. This benefits everyone. For areas where pets are welcome, provide perks like snacks, cleaning supplies, and toys. Designate entrances and exits that pet owners can use to bring their animals in and out. Space planning also helps employees who prefer to keep their distance, as boundaries provide notice of places to avoid.
Offer Pet Benefits: Certain federal and/or state laws prohibit companies from permitting pets (not to be confused with ADA service animals) at work. Offering employees other benefits like pet insurance, pet bereavement, pet daycare, and financial help for pet adoption are other ways companies can support their pet-owning workers, even if pets can’t come to work.
Waivers and Insurance: No list is complete without accounting for the chance something may go wrong. Consider requiring employees who bring pets to work to sign a waiver of liability for the company. Similarly, companies should check with their insurance to make sure that they are covered in the event an animal causes an injury in the workplace.
What about the ADA?
Voluntary pet policies should be considered separate from a company’s obligation to provide disabled workers with a reasonable accommodation, which may include use of a service animal at work. Three questions to consider when an employee asks to bring a service animal to work as an accommodation include: (1) does the employee have a disability; (2) is this a service animal, meaning is it trained to perform specific tasks to aid an employee in the performance of the job; and (3) is the service animal a reasonable accommodation.
If a service animal results in complaints from other employees (e.g., allergies, phobias, disruption), employers may consider other accommodations, or take other steps to address these complaints. The Job Accommodation Network, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, has some helpful tips for accommodating service animals. Where the issue is more complicated, contact your Polsinelli employment lawyer to discuss the circumstances more closely.