Small Talk: Flu outbreak particularly bad for small businesses
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 in the wake of 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. When a driver called in sick during the flu season last year, Joe Brasco put on a tux and drove a Rolls-Royce for a wedding.
The Brascos are taking other precautions limos and buses are being scrubbed down each time they are used.
"It's an enclosed cabin with everyone breathing in the same air," Ann Marie Brasco says.
The company has already lost some business because of the flu. One family that hired a bus for their daughter's 16th birthday party had to cancel. The Brascos didn't charge the family, but instead gave them a credit for a future rental.
At Preapps.com, three of the company's 10 workers were out sick with the flu at the same time. It was particularly bad timing the Boston-based mobile applications company is preparing for a product launch on Jan. 24.
Owner Sean Casto says the flu has wreaked havoc in other ways, as well.
"It's not just our team. It's other companies that we're trying to have potential meetings with we've had to delay meetings," Casto says.
Staffers worked from home as much as they could one of the big silver linings in a company whose work revolves around computers. But productivity is still suffering, Casto says.
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.
Five of the eight workers in Katherine Roepke's Minneapolis-based public relations firm, Roepke Public Relations, were out sick on a recent Friday. The company was already short-staffed because Roepke had been holding off on making two new hires while she tried to get a sense of how business would be this year.
The three people who were at work took on the projects that sick co-workers had been handling. Roepke, who doesn't usually write press releases, wrote them in her staffers' absence.
Coping with the absences hasn't been has bad as it could be. Roepke has long had a policy of training staffers so they can easily substitute for one another.
"We're dealing with so many deadlines. It's important that anyone can step in and do anything. That has helped us during this time," she says.
Joyce Rosenberg covers small business for The Associated Press.