Flu outbreak particularly bad for small businesses

Radhika Sivadi

4 min read ·


NEW YORK (AP) — 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. 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 16-year-old 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, Roepke Public Relations, firm were out sick last 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.

Even with such a small staff, Roepke says she'd rather have staffers stay home when they're not feeling well. An employee who was taking part in a meeting with clients from the Netherlands came down with the flu and Roepke knew the staffer would drag herself in despite being so ill. So Roepke e-mailed the staffer's husband.

"I said, 'please help me convince her to stay home,'" Roepke says. The employee agreed, and a co-worker filled in for her.

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 sub needs to be found immediately.

Four caregivers who work for the Caring Senior Service in Amarillo, Texas, called in sick last week. Owner Bill Archinal does have a pool of workers he can call on because the staffing needs in the caregiving business tend to fluctuate.

One caregiver who got the flu began to get symptoms while she was with a client. That meant finding someone right away to relieve her — no one wanted to risk having her infect her client. So a supervisor went to the client's home.

"When this caregiver called and said, 'I think I'm getting the flu,' they said, 'I'll be right there,'" Archinal says. "We want to get that sick person out of there."

Finding a replacement can become complicated. 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," Archinal says. 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."

Radhika Sivadi