Flu outbreak especially bad for small businesses

Sunday January 20, 2013

The flu season has created a scramble for New Jersey Limo Bus & Limousine.

Two of the company’s seven full-time employees called in sick at the same time. They were in charge of maintaining and cleaning the limos and buses. Two part-time drivers also called in sick.

"It’s very difficult to get things done," says Ann Marie Brasco, owner of the Fairfield, N.J., firm.

The epidemic is giving small businesses across the country their own case of the flu. Productivity is suffering, meetings and conference calls are being canceled as employees call in sick and owners are getting nervous as project deadlines approach. Workers who are still healthy are stepping in to cover for absent colleagues, and owners are looking outside their companies for backup help. Larger companies are also strained, but the situation is tougher on small businesses because they’re thinly staffed after holding off on hiring since the recession.

Brasco and her husband, Joe, have managed to find substitutes when workers have called in sick. But with the flu rampant in New Jersey, they’re recruiting more backup drivers. It’s not a simple process -- drivers have to be licensed to drive a limo, and they have to pass drug and background tests.

If all else fails, the Brascos have to sub for their workers.

Researchers at Pepperdine University say small businesses are taking a bigger hit from the flu than larger companies. Preliminary results of a survey under way now show that smaller companies are experiencing a greater loss of productivity and higher costs from the epidemic, says Craig Everett, associate director of Pepperdine’s Private Capital Markets Project, which is conducting the survey.

"One possible explanation is that small firms were already stretched thin by the recession and are now essentially playing the game without a bench," Everett says. "Small businesses may be less capable of covering for their sick employees, resulting in a more negative impact on output."

At many companies, when someone is out sick, it leaves a heavier workload for the healthy workers still on the job.

Companies that provide care for elderly and chronically ill people have to find substitutes when one of their caregivers comes down with the flu. Sometimes a client will resist having someone they don’t know come to care for them.

"They get upset and say,
just don’t send anybody,"
says Bill Archinal, owner of Caring Senior Service in Amarillo, Texas. If the client is someone who is frail and really needs the help, then supervisors will intervene and try to persuade the client to accept
a substitute.

As hard as it is for small businesses with employees to weather the flu, it’s even tougher for the more than 21 million companies that have no employees. When the owner is sick and can’t work, there’s no one to delegate to.

Last week, Ed Zitron was sick and lost his voice. He was able to get much of his work done by e-mail for his one-man public relations business, but phone calls were out of the question.

"I had to cancel calls left, right and center. People who I promised to call had to just not talk to me," says Zitron, whose company, EZPR, is based in New York.

But Zitron’s clients were understanding. He attributes that to having developed strong relationships and a sense of trust with them. And he’s up-front about not being able to work.

"I tell them the truth ... I just got really sick," he says. "They know I’m a solid person. They know I’m not going to disappear with their money."


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