Preparing a small business for a pandemicWritten by Tricia Taylor | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The federal government and local health departments have been warning the public about a possible influenza pandemic for years. Public Health departments have created communication campaigns to assist families and health care workers and schools prepare. Local small business owners, will need to assess the impact that the pandemic will have. That assessment needs to happen quickly, as cases of influenza are expected to spike in two to four weeks. There is no way to calculate exactly when the first surge of cases will hit the Midwest, but business owners who ignore the warning and the ticking clock will suffer the worst consequences.
Businesses can expect to lose 15 to 35 percent of their revenue as a result of the pandemic, mostly as a result of absenteeism during the peak of illnesses. Employees will either be sick themselves or taking care of family members who are sick.
Employees with young children may not be able to show up for work even if they and everyone they love remains healthy. Mexico closed all of its schools nationwide until May 8 to try to reduce the number of infections. As more domestic cases are identified, schools across the country will close to prevent the spread of the disease. It is reasonable to expect that local health care departments could mandate that day cares close when suspected and confirmed cases arise. With no day care options, many employees will not be able to come into work. While larger companies can shift responsibilities around to employees who can make it into work, small business owners will be left with no one to mind the store. Employees of small businesses will face specific challenges, because many of them will not be covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Family Medical Leave Act
FMLA became law in 1993 and was originally intended to provide job security for women who took time off to have a baby, but includes provisions for employees, both male and female, who need time off to care for newborn or newly adopted children or care for ill members of their immediate family.
In this pandemic, FMLA would not provide job security for
- part-time employees;
- full- or part-time employees of small businesses with less than 50 employees;
- employees who have worked for the same company less than one year;
- employees who need to take time off of work to care for members of their extended families: i.e. siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews or cousins.
Ironically, the federal law originally intended to protect working mothers actually provides no protection for a significant portion of women in the work force. FMLA protection is a significant factor in assessing which populations face financial risks in the event of a pandemic.
- 40 percent of women in the United States work less than full time;
- 44 percent of women in Ohio work less than full time;
- 71 percent of single mothers in the United States work less than full time;
- 74 percent of single mothers in Ohio work less than full time;
- and 72 percent of married mothers in both the United States and Ohio work less than full time.
Small business owners tend to take great pride in the relationship they have with their employees. Family businesses often feel like family. One of the challenges entrepreneurs will face in this pandemic is retaining employees through the challenge. Old-fashioned common courtesy and application of the Golden Rule will go a long way in this regard. Small business owners who are understanding of employees who need to care for sick family members or who have no day care options in times of peak infections will be better able to retain good employees, and those employees will be more likely to stick around even in hard times. Of course, it will be much easier to be understanding with proper planning.
Set priorities, be flexible
A small business will be able to survive the pandemic if the business needs are assessed and prioritized, employees are crosstrained, and if business owners remain flexible in their response.
Businesses should literally take stock: figure out what is available, what supplies the business will need over the next six to eight weeks and what supplies the business can do without.
In larger companies, job descriptions and roles are clearly defined. In a small organization, many employees have to perform tasks and functions outside of the scope of their job description under normal circumstances. Work force flexibility will be a key factor in business survival during the pandemic. However, if employees are not crosstrained in other functions now, then key business functions will not be tended to during peak times of absenteeism. As you prioritize customers and essential services, prioritize key functions essential to keep the business running. Train everybody to do at least two other key functions outside of their job description.
Flexibility will be key to any organization’s survival. Entrepreneurs must go with the flow and be able to react without rigidity.
If you have employees who do not normally work from home, evaluate what tasks could be done remotely, or what equipment or tasks could be done from an employee’s home. While many white-collar- based small businesses can function completely via e-mail, other service-based businesses will find it challenging to stay open.
Planning is necessary
The best way for any organization to prepare for any disaster is to acknowledge that a disaster is possible. In the case of an influenza pandemic, many organizations have no plan. Businesses may have plans for other disasters, like acts of terrorism, crime, fire, floods and other weather-related events, and many businesses have insurance to cover losses for such events. However, there is no insurance policy for an influenza pandemic. While many companies discuss disaster preparedness in regards to preventing the spread of the flu virus, very few employers do the financial analysis that is necessary to truly prepare for the potential economic impact on an individual business. Families living in poverty or on the edge of poverty will be at the mercy of the virulence of the virus. Businesses have the opportunity and the obligation to prepare financially for the obvious needs of the community through appropriate analysis and planning.
Tricia Taylor, MPH, works as an outcomes analyst for a health care consulting firm. While attending the Northwest Ohio Consortium for Public Health, she participated in studies of the potential financial impact of an influenza pandemic in Wood County and on families living in poverty in Ohio.