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Small Businesses Urged to Prepare for Disruptions From Swine Flu

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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Department of Homeland Security urged small businesses Monday to devise contingency plans allowing them to operate in the event a number of their employees become infected with the H1N1 virus.

With half of the nation's private-sector employees working at small businesses, federal officials said they want the enterprises to take precautions to prevent a disruption to the economy as the virus, also known as swine flu, wends its way across the United States.

"We are already seeing an uptick in cases across the country," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a conference call Monday. "We expect that to continue throughout the fall and winter."

Thus far, the government has established guidelines for college campuses and schools, largely encouraging the facilities to remain open and make arrangements for sick students to continue working at home. Some small-business owners said they hadn't yet thought about a flu plan -- and are not certain it would do much good even if they had one.

"Most of the press has focused on schools. I haven't thought much about it from a workforce standpoint," said Marlon B. Johnson, president and chief executive of Infused Solutions, a contracting firm based in Sterling that provides information technology services for government agencies.

The company has 40 employees and losing 10 "could have an impact" on meeting its obligations to the government, he said. Most of the employees "are not easily replaceable."

Molly Brogan, spokeswoman for the National Small Business Association, said swine flu has the potential to do serious harm to some fragile small businesses that already have been pushed to the edge by the recession.

"I think you'll see a lot of business owners stretched to the max," Brogan said. "You'll see stores shut down a day or two. In this economy, you can't afford that. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of other options."

The government is urging small businesses to prepare for a worst-case scenario, with high numbers of workers suffering from severe bouts of the virus.

Officials said workers may be out three to five days and that businesses should think about how they would handle duties of key people who were out sick.

"People can work from home. If we have court appearances, other attorneys can fill in and take over," said David Hudgins, principal and founder of Hudgins Law Firm, a 12-person operation in Alexandria, which specializes in corporate and insurance litigation cases. But "if we had a serious outbreak with five to six people out, we'd have to scramble. We think clients, courts and opposing attorneys would be understanding if we had to postpone" a trial.

While professional service businesses can maintain operations remotely, manufacturing firms need their people on-site to work.

Luc Brami, principal of Gelberg Signs in the District, said his 30 office employees could work from home, but he'd be "between a rock and a hard place" if a large number of his production staff went out sick. "I'd be devastated," he said. "You can't make things from home. We're keeping our fingers crossed and washing our hands," hoping that everyone stays well.

Don Owen, owner of P&P Contractors, a Rockville-based business that installs drywall, said he'd shift people from job sites to fill in for sick workers. But if a large number fell ill, he said, he'd likely have to hire temporary workers. "In this economy, there's an abundance of people available," he said.

The government's guidelines also urge businesses to identify an H1N1 coordinator who would oversee efforts to respond to the virus; review sick leave policies to ensure workers would not be penalized for missing work to take care of themselves or children who came down with the virus; distance workers from one another to minimize spread of germs; and share their plans with employees.

The guidelines can be found at www.sba.gov/flu.


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