Many employees welcomed a furry (or scaly) friend into their lives over the pandemic for companionship and because working at home allowed them the flexibility to do so. Now that employees are returning to the office, finding care for these pets may prove challenging. Some employers are considering implementing pet-friendly office spaces to alleviate this issue, boost employee morale, and to make returning to the office less daunting.
I, myself, am a fur-parent to two dogs who, pre-pandemic, used to attend at our offices every Friday (this was known as ‘Puppy Fridays’ and was a source of much joy for our team and our clients alike). While there are many benefits to allowing employees to bring their pets to work, there are also many issues that employers need to watch out for. In this post, we outline some of the issues that could arise from an employment law perspective.
Establishing the ground rules
One of the first issues that can arise when allowing pets into the workplace is a lack of clarity regarding what is and what is not permitted. Any employer considering a pet-friendly office should prepare a written policy with respect to same and ensure all employees are aware of the contents. Any, and all, issues relating to employees bringing pets to work should be addressed within this policy.
One issue that may be easily overlooked is what kind of animals will be permitted in the workplace. Most of the time when we think about pet friendly offices, we think about dogs or cats coming with us to work. However, there are many other kinds of pets that an employee could have, such as gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, snakes, lizards, birds, etc. Employers will want to consider what types of animals will be permitted in the workplace and ensure all staff are aware of any limitations.
Employers will also want to consider whether pets are permitted at all times or limited to certain days or certain time frames within a day. These are just some examples – all the issues set out below can, and should, be addressed in a pet-friendly office policy.
Human rights issues and employee/visitor comfort
Not everyone is an animal lover. Employers will need to consider how they will address an employee, or visitor to the workplace, who does not wish to be near animals. Beyond simply disliking certain animals, some employees may have a severe fear or allergies. In cases where the employee’s objection to being around animals is based on their membership in any protected ground (such as disability or religion), an employer has a duty to accommodate up to the point of undue hardship. In the case of someone with an allergy, for example, accommodation might look like allowing the employee to work from home or in a separate area where pets are not permitted. Employers should make it clear how employees can raise issues or concerns relating to pets in the workplace within their policy.
Similarly, for visitors or guests to the office, employers will want to consider:
- how they will alert guests ahead of time that animals may be present in the office, and
- how they will address any concerns that guests may have.
For example, will pets only be allowed on certain days, so there are pet-free meeting days available to be scheduled? Or will pets be kept away from areas where visitors/guests would be?
Health and safety issues
Every employer has an obligation to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of its workers. This means employers will be responsible for ensuring no animal allowed on site presents a health and safety risk to its staff. Health and safety risks can come in the form of:
- bites or scratches,
- allergies being triggered,
- animals becoming tripping hazards or blocking exits,
- conflicts between animals, or
- sanitation issues (such as animals being present in areas where food is normally consumed, like an employee lunchroom).
If an employee is injured at work because of a pet, the employer would have the same reporting obligations and liabilities as they would with any other kind of workplace injury.
Liability for property damage or injury to a pet
An employer may also be liable for any damage caused by a pet, or any injury sustained by a pet while at the workplace. Employers should carefully review their lease (if applicable) to determine if pets are permitted in the workplace and any restrictions on the same. They may also want to review their insurance policy to see if their coverage would protect them against any damage or injuries (to pets or humans) that could arise. Employers may also want to advise employees that if they choose to bring their pet to the workplace, they are doing so at their own risk.
As lovable as pets are, they can be a source of significant distraction in the workplace. Employers will want to consider the fact that some pets may need regular bathroom breaks, which will require their owners to potentially leave their desk several times a day to take them outside. Many pet-friendly workplaces continue to operate effectively and efficiently, but employers will want to consider any potential impact on productivity before moving ahead.
Most employers in Ontario have obligations with respect to accessibility for employees and customers pursuant to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. Employers will want to ensure allowing pets does not impact or interfere with any staff member’s accessibility needs. Conversely, employers will want to be careful in instituting any type of ban on animals in the workplace that does not provide an exemption for service animals.
Allowing pets in the workplace has a lot of benefits, but employers should carefully consider all the points above before moving forward. If you are considering allowing pets in your workplace, we would be pleased to work with you to develop clear policies and procedures to limit risk as much as possible.