New Regulations on Service Animals in the Hotel Industry

By Kathleen Pohlid Founder & Managing Member, Pohlid, PLLC | May 08, 2011

Co-authored by Soy Williams, President, Soy Williams Consulting

A guest with a dog under leash asks hotel reception for a room. Since the guest does not appear to be disabled and the dog has no service animal marking, reception advises, "pets are not allowed." When the guest informs the dog is a disability service animal, reception politely inquires as to the guest's disability and the animal's certification. Is this a problem? Yes, it is. This scenario illustrates the importance of developing policies and staff training on the recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act to promote compliance under the ADA and foster exceptional guest relations.

A well-trained hotel staff can make the critical difference between fostering or chilling guest relations, as well as, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance or liability. This principle is especially true with respect to the issue of accommodation of the use of service animals by persons with disabilities. Hotel establishments should ensure they develop policies and train their staff on accommodation of service animals.

The ADA, enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and their companions and applies to facilities of public accommodation including hotels. On July 23, 2010, new amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act were issued which include provisions relating to accommodation of service animals. Those provisions, published in the Federal Register on September 15, 2010, went into effect on March 15, 2011.

One area of potential ADA liability arises when employees, who are trained not to permit pets in an establishment, are not adequately trained on the ADA requirements for accommodation of service animals. Hotel staff should know the distinction: service animals are not pets.

A settlement between the U.S. Attorney's office and a Sacramento hotel last year shows the importance of hotel staff understanding this distinction. Despite being informed at check-in that a hotel guest was traveling with a service animal, the hotel allegedly treated the animal as a pet. The complaint alleged the hotel failed to modify its policies to allow service animals without requiring individuals with disabilities to pay the pet deposit, to assign them to a pet floor, and to subject them to the hotel's pet policy. Hotel staff must ensure that service animals are excluded from their pet policy.

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Human Resources: An Era of Transition

Traditionally, the human resource department administers five key areas within a hotel operation - compliance, compensation and benefits, organizational dynamics, selection and retention, and training and development. However, HR professionals are also presently involved in culture-building activities, as well as implementing new employee on-boarding practices and engagement initiatives. As a result, HR professionals have been elevated to senior leadership status, creating value and profit within their organization. Still, they continue to face some intractable issues, including a shrinking talent pool and the need to recruit top-notch employees who are empowered to provide outstanding customer service. In order to attract top-tier talent, one option is to take advantage of recruitment opportunities offered through colleges and universities, especially if they have a hospitality major. This pool of prospective employees is likely to be better educated and more enthusiastic than walk-in hires. Also, once hired, there could be additional training and development opportunities that stem from an association with a college or university. Continuing education courses, business conferences, seminars and online instruction - all can be a valuable source of employee development opportunities. In addition to meeting recruitment demands in the present, HR professionals must also be forward-thinking, anticipating the skills that will be needed in the future to meet guest expectations. One such skill that is becoming increasingly valued is “resilience”, the ability to “go with the flow” and not become overwhelmed by the disruptive influences  of change and reinvention. In an era of transition—new technologies, expanding markets, consolidation of brands and businesses, and modifications in people's values and lifestyles - the capacity to remain flexible, nimble and resilient is a valuable skill to possess. The March Hotel Business Review will examine some of the strategies that HR professionals are employing to ensure that their hotel operations continue to thrive.