A growing number of employers—especially in the digital sector—are introducing special benefits such as “fur-ternity leave” for employees with pets. But before joining the trend, companies might want to check first with their in-house lawyers.
Nina Hale Inc., a Minneapolis digital marketing firm with 85 employees, announced on Aug. 20 that it was expanding its benefits program to offer a week of work-from-home days to allow new pet parents to spend time with their new companions and help the pets adjust to their surroundings.
“Part of embracing employee satisfaction as a business priority means recognizing important life events that happen outside of the office,” said Nina Hale CEO Donna Robinson. “If we want to continue to set the example as a top workplace, it is crucial to offer innovative benefits that help to preserve the work-life happiness of our employee owners.”
Employees at mParticle, a data analytics company in New York, are offered what it calls “paw-ternity leave”— two weeks of paid time off for those who adopt a rescue dog or other pet. The company also allows pets at work.
According to its website, “mParticle likes to keep things casual around the office by creating a comfortable environment where everyone feels energized. With this in mind, the company welcomes furry friends at work, and on any given day, three or four dogs might be found playing around in different areas, greeting visitors with a warm wag of the tail.”
Whatever one calls it, company pet leave and other pet-related benefits are an increasing trend, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
But experts warn that before acting, employers should discuss any policy change carefully with their in-house or outside counsel.
“It’s something a company can do to attract, retain and support its employees. But just think through all the issues,” suggested Eric Meyer, an employment attorney in the Philadelphia office of FisherBroyles. Meyer also is president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Labor and Employment Law Section, and he publishes The Employer Handbook, an employment law blog for management.
For example, Meyer asked, should an employer grant paid or unpaid time off, and for which events—the adoption of a new pet, vet visits when it’s sick, bereavement leave when it dies? And, he asked, should a company limit the type of pet covered to dogs and cats, or include other more unusual pets, such as snakes and alpacas?
“What I suggest for benefits such as bereavement leave is to go broad,” the lawyer said. “I could love an ant as much as a dog. Don’t put a judgment on the grief over the loss of a pet.”
But he did suggest setting a limit on the length of the leave. A lot of companies, he said, have adopted a “bucket leave” policy, which includes all paid time off. The employee can then use the time for any purpose he or she chooses, including for a pet.
Or an employer may prefer allowing unpaid time off for pet care, similar to family leave, Meyer said.
As for bringing pets to work, he explained, there are two big issues: liability and pet allergies. For liability issues, he recommended the employer check with its insurance broker.
For medical issues, such as allergies or animal phobias, he advised the employer to encourage affected employees to talk with the human resources department.
“The employer may need to provide an accommodation, such as working remotely, or cancel the event altogether if there is a critical mass of sniffling workers,” Meyer said.
Meyer, though, is on the side of the pet owners. He said he often works from home with his dog, Yao Ming, a small schnauzer-poodle mix named for the former 7’ 6” center for the Houston Rockets, by his feet.