SHERMANS DALE, Pa. (WHTM) – Service animals and emotional support animals are a necessity for some and can often provide a better quality of life. Government agencies, however, may not see eye-to-eye.
Many restaurant owners are asking for clarification of Pennsylvania’s definition of a support animal.
“When it comes to emotional support animals, which they say can be any animal. We serve food. Where do we legally stand on not allowing people to bring in chickens?,” said Tim Ricker, owner of Pandemonium Bar and Grill.
Ricker has been in the restaurant business for 29 years, and though he is familiar with service animals, he has seen an increase in people attempting to bring emotional support animals into his restaurant.
“I think restaurants in Pennsylvania really need to know where we stand. Does that open us to a lawsuit if we don’t allow them to have their animals in? If someone gets bit, does that open us up for a lawsuit? Just to get those questions answered would be really nice,” Ricker said.
According to federal law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is defined as a dog (in rare cases, a miniature horse) that performs a task for someone with a disability.
“The emotional support animal doesn’t necessarily provide a service, per se, but just comfort and support and is not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Zachary Nahass, an attorney with CGA law firm.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is even broader than the ADA.
“The way we define it is those animals that are with people because people need special accommodations. It could be because someone is blind or someone needs emotional support,” said Chad Dion Lassiter, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
Unlike federal law, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act lumps service animals and emotional support animals into one category: support animals.
“We don’t differentiate,” Lassiter said. “Someone might go in with an iguana. Someone may have a parrot on their shoulder. Another person may go with a cat.”
There is also no limitation on what kind of animal it can be.
“That is a huge problem,” said Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.
The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association has approximately 2,800 members.
“We get probably one to two calls every single week from one of our members who are either confused or have a scenario that they want to know if they are in compliance with either the federal law or the state law,” said Bova.
Adding to the confusion, restaurants are inspected by the Department of Agriculture.
“The Department of Agriculture recognizes service animals but not support animals,” Bova said. “We have not been advocating that our members need to allow emotional support animals on the premises because they don’t have the same training in many cases as service animals.”
“Our data speaks to that these support animals are highly trained,” Lassiter said.
ABC27 reached out to the Department of Agriculture for clarification on its stance.
“Dogs, including service animals, are never allowed in food prep areas in restaurants. Support or service animals for disabilities are allowed, provided they are within the owner’s control. Non-service animals can only be in restaurants if the restaurant has a dedicated serving area and servers; the servers in pet areas do not pass through other dining areas or into the kitchen; the animal does not have contact with wait staff or service staff; and all foods and food containers are disposed of by the consumer in outside trash cans,” Agriculture press secretary Shannon Powers said.
All restaurants in Pennsylvania must follow the Pennsylvania Food Code. Inspectors can note a violation if an animal is in a restaurant.
“One of the categories for compliance under prevention of food contamination is ‘insects, rodents, and animals not present’,” Powers said.
Under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, restaurants cannot deny entrance to a support animal. However, if the animal becomes unruly, urinates or defecates, or becomes aggressive, the restaurant can ask for the animal to be removed.
“I’m concerned that someone would be bitten by one of those animals. Am I the one that would get sued?” Ricker said.
“There’s probably going to be liability all around in that case. I think my advice is to think about your internal policies. Talk to your attorney about it and then make sure your employees are trained on what your policy is so that you don’t have employees turning away people with service or support animals when they shouldn’t be and, at the same time, letting your employees know when they can step in and say this isn’t happening here,” Nahass said.
“We see it on both sides,” Lassiter said. “All of those who are asking for [the Human Relations Act] to move from the level of being vague to having more clarity, they are absolutely right. We hear those critiques. It is something we are going to be working on.”
Ricker hopes that happens. “This law needs to be defined. The ADA has a pretty good handle on it. Why Pennsylvania chose to go even further than that, I don’t know.”