When ADA Accommodations Collide

What can employers do when two employee requirements conflict with each other?

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Last updated on January 24, 2023

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Two people work in the same office. Sandy enjoys the company of her service animal, Max, who leads her safely around the office. Brad, however, is deathly allergic to dogs. Both employees have cubicles in the same office, and are now stuck in a difficult situation. How can a small company employer reasonably accommodate both workers, and stay on the right side of employment laws?

What Does the Law Say?

Laws prohibit employment discrimination based on a disability, and employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees. Allowing an individual with a disability to have a service animal or an emotional support animal accompany them to work may be considered such an accommodation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title I), does not have a specific regulation on service animals. In the case of a service or emotional support animal, if the disability is not obvious and/or the reason the animal is needed is not clear, an employer may request documentation to establish the existence of a disability and how the animal helps the individual perform his or her job. Once an employer learns that an applicant or employee, with significant difficulty to allergic reactions to a substance in the workplace, the employer will be required to accommodate the employee. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity such as working. Major life activities also include major bodily functions such as the function of the immune system. With both service animals and allergies, the employer’s standard is the same: A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, work environment, or way things usually are done that enables a qualified individual with a disability to enjoy an equal employment opportunity. Employers are not required to provide any accommodation if it would impose an undue hardship upon that employer’s business. This determination of what constitutes an undue burden can vary from one employer to the next, depending upon the size of the employer’s business, its financial resources and other factors. EEOC complaints have been filed for failure to accommodate service animals, and many lawsuits that have paid out the statutory maximum of $300,000 or more—not to mention the cost to defend such a suit. In 2017, a state worker in Nevada won a lawsuit after a trial for $3 million over his workplace allergy to perfume. Another case in 2010 had the city of Detroit paying $100,000 for allergies related to perfume use in the workplace as well.

How Can an Employer Fix This Issue?

Both service and emotional support animals may be excluded from the workplace if they pose either an undue hardship or a direct threat in the workplace. If a person is at risk of a significant allergic reaction to an animal, it is the responsibility of the business or government entity to find a way to accommodate both the individual using the service animal and the individual with the allergy. The problem stems from the premise that no disability be treated as more important than another. As such, no accommodation can favor one over another. Inevitably there will be instances where this or other conflicting regulations may happen, and the ADA says accommodations should discuss the various options in good faith. In the Sandy and Brad example, considerations could include working in opposite areas of the building, providing enclosed workspaces, scheduling their work times apart, working from home or another location, et cetera. If working with an employer is yielding unfavorable results for any party, they should contact an experienced and reputable employment lawyer to advise them on the next steps. For more information about this area, see our overviews on employment law for employersdiscrimination, and disability.

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