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AT THE OFFICE: Bosses' dog may bother workers, but it's not illegal

Q: I work in a small office. The owners are a husband and wife who bring their boxer to work several times a week. They don't leash the dog, so it has the full run of the office. I have been told that the dog has growled at some of my co-workers,...

Q: I work in a small office. The owners are a husband and wife who bring their boxer to work several times a week. They don't leash the dog, so it has the full run of the office. I have been told that the dog has growled at some of my co-workers, but I have not heard him do this. Still, I am afraid of dogs and don't want to work with one. I'm surprised the owners didn't ask us for our opinion before practically adding their dog to the staff. They would have uncovered some concerns. But they seem so fixated on the dog that they don't give much thought to its effect on us. The owners don't have any children and look at this dog as their child. Complaining to them is out of the question. What do you think of this? Do I have any rights?

A: They say love is blind, and the owners' love of their dog has blinded them to the implications of a dog in the office. Indeed, they should have at least polled you and your co-workers to determine if you have any objections because of allergies, fear or general discomfort in toiling in an office with a pooch running around.

For a legal opinion, I turned to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces workplace health and safety issues. The news is mixed, at best.

"There's nothing illegal about bringing a dog to work," said John Chavez, a spokesman for the U.S. Labor Department, which includes OSHA.

But he said the agency would get involved if a dog is "demonstrably vicious" or attacks employees.

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You should consider filing a complaint anyway, especially if you can confirm that the dog has growled at some of your office mates.

"If they really do feel that the dog poses a workplace safety and health hazard to them, they do have the right to file a complaint with OSHA," Chavez said.

And it's worth mentioning that your company couldn't legally fire you for complaining to the agency. That would violate whistle-blowing statutes.

Q: All the permanent substitutes in my school district received a notice that our positions were being eliminated because of budget cuts. While we recognize that these positions are at-will, doesn't the elimination of the category in fact "fire us" and entitle us to unemployment insurance?

A: Your at-will status has no bearing on whether you are eligible to collect unemployment. At-will employees aren't covered by a contract and can be fired at any time. So the term "at will" goes to the issue of job security, not eligibility for unemployment benefits. Most employees are at will.

You could well be eligible for benefits, according to the New York State Labor Department. Here is how the department responded to your question: "Generally when a school district advises a professional employee that there is no assurance of employment for the next school term and the individual has no reasonable assurance of employment with any other school district in a similar capacity for the next school term, they should file for unemployment benefits at the end of the current school term."

The department cautions, however, that it cannot predetermine cases without more facts. So file, and hear what comes back.

(Mason-Draffen is the author of "151 Quick Ideas to Deal With Difficult People." She welcomes questions for the "Help Wanted" column. Contact her at 631-843-2450 or carrie.draffen@newsday.com .)

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