Service-Dog ‘Fakers’: Could It Happen at Work?

464734925 -- guide dogsThis was certainly intriguing: a release from KCRA in Sacramento, Calif., about a hearing before the California State Senate examining what appears to be a real problem out there: people masquerading their dogs as guide dogs for the disabled so they can bring them along to wherever they’re going.

I guess they would miss them that much, which says something about the kind of person who would conjure up such a scheme. Worse yet, what kind of person would actually then “play act” a disability, namely blindness?

“This is a big issue in California,” Phyllis Cheng, the executive director of the Fair Employment and Housing department, says in testimony. In fact, here is the entire senate-hearing report:

Here, too, is the Fox 45 news report on the problem:

So I’m wondering, could this become a problem in the workplace? I asked two employment attorneys — Keisha-Ann Gray at Proskauer (HREOnline‘s “Legal Clinic” columnist) and James McDonald, managing partner of the Irvine, Calif., office of Fisher & Phillips — for their takes on this.

They tell me that, although there is no hard-and-fast rule under the Americans with Disabilities Act requiring employers to allow guide dogs to accompany disabled employees, every employer with 15 or more employees is required to try and make a reasonable accommodation if the request is made, unless that accommodation would cause an undue hardship to the business or present a direct threat to health and safety.

Could this kind of cheating actually lead to workplace “dog parks” though? Well, maybe not dog parks, but both say yes, they could see this kind of problem occurring at work. Such widespread scheming is definitely humanely possible, they say. “I know of people personally who claim their pets are service animals and they put a little vest on the animal so they can go in restaurants, etc.,” McDonald says.

Neither attorney gave much credence to this getting out of hand, necessarily, in corporate America. Thinking realistically, if you consider the fact that employees bringing dogs to work would then have to care for them for the entire day (and we’re talking food, exercise and potty breaks), “that might mitigate this a little bit,” McDonald says.

The bottom line to keep in mind, says Gray, is that this is the very type of situation that could get you in legal trouble if not handled properly. Faking questions aside, “once the employer is aware they have someone who can perform essential functions of the job, but would need help to perform the job based on a disability,” that employer must engage in a reasonable-accommodation dialogue.

And although “reasonable” does mean it does not create undue hardship or safety hazards, proving that a particular dog might bite or “seems irritable” could get dicey.

I’m thinking trying to nail someone for faking a disability or service-dog credentials could get dicey, too.

Best advice, from Gray: “If you’re thinking of denying a person a request for a reasonable accommodation, for whatever reason, get counsel involved.”