A New Zealand advertising agency employee recently made headlines after bringing an emotional support clown to his termination meeting. Sensing the writing on the wall, the man paid $200 to hire a professional clown to lighten the mood during a meeting notifying the employee of his layoff. The employee claims the meeting went smoothly, other than some distracting noises caused by the clown making balloon animals.
While there have been a number of headlines in recent years regarding strange support animals (e.g., pigs, ducks, peacocks, squirrels, and even turkeys), this one certainly takes the cake. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended, a "service animal" is one that has been trained to do work or perform tasks directly related to an individual's disability.
Animals that provide comfort or emotional support without training to perform a specific job or task do not qualify as "service animals" under the ADA. However, employees may still request to bring their support animals as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Don't Doubt a Support Squirrel
Employers should treat employee requests for service or support animals in the workplace just as seriously as any other accommodation request. The fact that the request involves an animal does not alleviate the employer's duty to engage in the interactive process and to conduct an individualized assessment regarding the request. A best practice is to keep detailed records regarding each step in the interactive process.
Employers should also clearly communicate the basis for any denial of such a request, explaining why the request constitutes an undue hardship for the employer. In addition, if the request is granted, the employer should be prepared to deal with potential issues with coworkers. Common issues include coworker complaints about allergies, which may be resolved by utilizing a special air filter or rearranging work spaces to also accommodate those with allergic reactions.
In addition, while the presence of a service or support animal may spark questions from coworkers, employers should be mindful of their continuing confidentiality obligations under the ADA. It is generally helpful to discuss with the employee how he or she would like the employer to handle educating coworkers on appropriate interactions with the service or support animal.
Meanwhile, it is doubtful that we will be seeing a new trend of emotional support clowns in the employment setting. There is no indication that the employee's decision to bring the clown was disability-related, and even if it were, there are a host of reasons (balloon animal noises aside) an employer would deem such a request to be unreasonable.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.