- A Hobby Lobby store in Olathe, Kansas, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it did not allow an employee to use her service dog as a reasonable accommodation, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in a July 1 statement announcing a lawsuit against the employer.
- According to the EEOC, the employee, a cashier, requested use of her service dog to deal with symptoms caused by PTSD, anxiety and depression. The store’s HR representative met with the worker to discuss the accommodation, but concluded the dog “would present a safety concern because a coworker or customer might be allergic to or trip over the dog, or the dog might break something,” EEOC said. The store terminated the worker after she refused to work without her dog.
- “Employers must not reject service animals, or any other reasonable accommodation, based on stereotypes or assumptions regarding the safety or effectiveness of the accommodation,” David Davis, acting director of the EEOC’s St. Louis district office, said in the release. Hobby Lobby did not respond to a request for a statement by press time.
Employers with 15 or more employees are required to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities who need them, the Americans with Disabilities Act states. While an employer doesn’t have to provide a requested accommodation if doing so would create an undue hardship, the ADA favors an interactive process — a process through which an employer and employee work to find a suitable accommodation.
The Hobby Lobby case could rest on whether or not a service dog would present an undue hardship for the worksite. An undue hardship is presented by an accommodation that is particularly costly or that is “unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive,” the EEOC has explained in guidance documents on the ADA.
The HR representative referenced in the EEOC’s press release allegedly objected to the potentially disruptive nature of the dog, noting that it might break something or pose a safety issue; however, in its release, the EEOC noted that customers were allowed to bring service dogs and other dogs into the store, complicating this objection.
Last year, a panel of experts discussed service animals at an EEOC conference, pointing out that while technically service dogs could present an undue hardship in certain circumstances, the bar to clear “is really high.” Even in most circumstances in which a problem may present itself, panelists said, a creative and flexible solution can usually be found.
The panelists also noted the extreme rarity of service animals presenting safety issues, although if such an issue did present itself, the employer would be within bounds to disallow the animal as a “direct threat” under the ADA. As EEOC Acting Director Davis noted, however, the assumption of a threat without evidence may not be sufficient to categorize the dog as an undue hardship.