Small Businesses Get Instructions from Federal Officials

Yesterday federal officials said, small businesses should be prepared to operate with fewer employees this fall as swine flu spreads.

The Department of Homeland Security is issuing flu guidelines to small businesses, which employ about half of the workers in the private sector.

“They play a key role in protecting the health and safety of the country,’’ Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said.

Also yesterday, researchers reported that many people spread swine flu for a week or more after symptoms appear, and that coughing may be a better sign than fever for telling who is contagious.

Health officials have been telling people to avoid contact with others for a day after their fever goes away. The new research suggests they may need to be careful for longer, especially at home, where the risk of spreading the germ is highest.

“You’re probably contagious for about a week,’’ said Dr. Gaston De Serres, a scientist at the Institute of Public Health in Quebec.

Homeland Security recommends that small businesses identify essential operations and have plans for functioning with reduced staffing. The government also says businesses should consider letting employees work from home if they get sick, Boston Globe reports.

News agencies also report, federal officials said they want the nation's private-sector 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," 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, the Washington Post reports.

In the meantime, small businesses might be especially hard hit, since many are likely to have a harder time filling gaps created by sick employees, or those staying home to care for family members.

Employer concerns about filling those gaps nationwide are apparent in a survey released last week by the Harvard School of Public Health. The survey showed only one-third of American businesses believed they could sustain their operations without severe problems if they lose half of their workforce for two weeks during the upcoming flu season, the Wall Street Juornal reports.

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