Both New York’s Human Rights Law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require New York employers to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Such an accommodation may include allowing employees to bring a service dog to work. (For rules on bringing a service dog to public places, see Nolo's article on New York service dog laws.)
Service dogs can perform a variety of tasks in the workplace for people with disabilities. A service dog may push elevator buttons, pull a wheelchair, or retrieve and hold items. A guide dog may help someone with a vision impairment navigate safely around the workplace. A hearing or signal dog may alert someone to important noises, such as telephone tones or warning sirens. And, a psychiatric service dog may assist someone with a mental disability by calming the effects of PTSD, scanning areas for safety, or interrupting self-destructive thoughts and behavior.
The federal ADA and New York’s Human Rights Law have slightly different definitions of service animals, discussed below. And the ADA applies only to private employers with at least 15 employees. If you work for a smaller company, you may be protected by New York’s Human Rights Law, which applies to employers with at least four employees. If you work for a larger company, both laws apply to you. In this situation, you are entitled to rely on whichever law gives you the most protection.
While the part of the ADA that applies to public accommodations defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks or do work for the benefit of a person with a disability, the part of the ADA that applies to employment does not use this same definition.
Under the employment discrimination sections of the ADA, an employer may be required to allow an employee to use a service dog at work as a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability, but an employer may also have to consider allowing an employee to use an "emotional support animal," companion animal (pet), or other assistance animal, if the employee needs the animal as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. (Emotional support animals are animals that provide comfort and companionship to those with psychiatric or emotional disabilities or conditions. Although these animals often have therapeutic benefits, they are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers. Under the ADA, owners of public accommodations are not required to allow emotional support animals, only service dogs.)
Under New York law, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against applicants or employees because they use a properly trained service dog, hearing dog, or guide dog. New York’s Human Rights Law defines three types of service animals, all dogs:
In addition, New York’s Civil Rights Law gives people who use service dogs, guide dogs, and hearing dogs the right to have their dogs with them at their place of employment, as long as the dog is properly trained and under the handler’s control.
Under both the ADA and New York law, employees with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations that will allow them to do their jobs. A reasonable accommodation is an action taken at work, such as assistance or a change to the workspace, job duties, work rules and policies, location of events, and so on, that will allow employees with disabilities to perform their job duties. Employers must provide a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would create "undue hardship" (more on this below).
As noted above, emotional support animals do not fall under the definition of “service animals” under either state or federal law. New York law gives you the right to have a service animal, guide dog, or hearing dog at work; this provision does not apply to emotional support animals. However, both state and federal law require employers to accommodate employees with disabilities. If you have a disability for which you need an emotional support animal, you can request this as a reasonable accommodation. If the animal assists you with your disability, does not create undue hardship, and does not pose a direct threat, your employer may be required to accommodate you.
If you need your employer to accommodate the presence of your service dog at work, you should request this accommodation in writing, so you have a record of when you asked for an accommodation and what information you provided to your employer. In your letter, describe your disability and how it affects you. Explain that you need to bring a service or assistance animal to work as an accommodation, and describe how the animal will assist you in performing your job. Describe how your animal has been trained and the tasks or work the animal does (for example, pulling your wheelchair, assisting you with manual tasks, or alerting you to the onset of a seizure). You may also want to describe how you will care for the animal at work, including where the animal will be and how the animal’s needs will be met. Your employer can request documentation of your need for the animal, the animal’s training and duties, and the animal’s good behavior.
Your employer doesn’t have to allow you to bring an animal if it poses a direct threat to the health and safety of you or your coworkers. An employer might claim direct threat if your dog shows aggression towards people, for example.
And an employer may deny your request to bring your service animal to work if it would create undue hardship. To prove an undue hardship, the employer must show that allowing the animal would impose a significant burden or cost, given the nature and expense of the accommodation, the nature of the employer, and the size and resources of the employer. But an employer cannot simply say “we don’t allow dogs,” or “coworkers won’t want your dog at work.”
Sometimes, employers are concerned that it might be an undue hardship to allow a service dog if other employees have severe dog allergies. In this situation, there may be solutions that aren’t too costly or disruptive, such as providing air filters, moving employees away from each other and into private workspaces with doors that close, arranging for the dog to remain elsewhere when employees must interact (in meetings, for example), or creating a schedule for the use of public spaces so allergic employees need not come into contact with the dog.
Your employer can require that your animal not disrupt the workplace by requiring your service animal to be under your control and well-behaved at all times. You should arrange to allow the dog to “use the facilities” as necessary, and the dog should be clean and free of fleas and ticks.
If your employer denies your request to bring a needed service animal to work, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you assess the situation and decide the most effective way to proceed, such as writing a demand letter to your employer or filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.