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Refusing to allow service animal in workplace was discriminatory

February 23rd, 2017  |  Deborah Hammonds

A Washington truck company discriminated against a longtime employee when it refused to allow her to bring a trained service dog to work. Haney, a Yakima-based heavy haul trucking company that operates in seven states and Canada, prohibited the employee from using her trained service animal, Lucky, who alerts her to dangerous blood sugar drops, according to the Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The employee worked for over 16 years in the truck company’s payroll and billing department. After her diagnosis, the employee wrote to the human resources manager, requesting her trained service dog be allowed at work as a reasonable accommodation. Her request was denied. During a discussion of the request, the CEO told the human resources manager that allowing the employee’s untrained service animal at work would lead others to want to bring their untrained animals to work. The employer suggested alternative accommodations were available, such as taking extra breaks to check her blood sugar, eat or take medication and giving the employee a designated shady parking space so Lucky could remain in the car while the employee worked inside. After denying her third request, the employer stated it had gone above and beyond what was required and that because the employee’s condition did not limit her ability to perform the essential functions of her job, no accommodation was needed.

The employee provided letters from physicians discussing her condition and noting the necessity of having Lucky by her side at work. She also tried the alternative accommodations suggested by her employer, but ultimately resigned due to deteriorating health and her need to have Lucky nearby. She filed a disability discrimination complaint with the Washington Human Rights Commission.

In concluding the employer violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination, the administrative law judge pointed out that the state’s disability discrimination laws and regulations stated “it is an unfair practice for an employer to request that a trained dog guide or service animal be removed from the workplace, unless that employer can show that the presence, behavior or actions of that dog guide or service animal constitutes an unreasonable risk to property or other persons.” Being annoyed at the presence of a service animal “is not an unreasonable ‘risk to property or other persons’ justifying removal of the dog guide or service animal.” No is not an option for a disabled person’s trained service animal in the workplace when it poses no unreasonable risk of harm to persons or property. Denying Lucky also amounted to denying the employee reasonable accommodation.

Although the employer argued that the employee’s hypoglycemia did not substantially limit her job performance, and that she was still able to successfully perform the duties of her position without Lucky present, especially given the other accommodations it offered, those arguments were rejected. The law does not require an employee to wait to suffer a substantial work limitation in order to obtain a reasonable accommodation. The employer was told, by the employee and her health care providers, of the danger of her condition without reasonable accommodation, specifically Lucky. The employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate the employee by providing her a work environment where Lucky could be regularly near her amounted to a violation of the statute.

The company’s management, including its human resources director, “clearly had insufficient knowledge of Washington disability discrimination law, particularly concerning service animals.”

The employee was awarded nearly $23,000 in damages and costs. The employer was also ordered to stop improper denials of reasonable accommodations, including for service animals, and its management employees must undergo training.

“The Washington Law Against Discrimination contains clear protections for employees who use trained service animals,” Ferguson said. “Employers must allow service animals so employees may properly and safely perform their jobs. My office will continue to enforce our laws prohibiting illegal discrimination at work.”

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