House Hearing: How Will Swine Flu Impact Small Businesses?

During a Sept. 9 hearing before the House Committee on Small Business, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Commerce and the Department of Homeland Security testified about preparations underway to help small companies respond to an anticipated resurgence of the H1N1 virus.

“While it is too early to tell how fast the H1N1 virus will spread, the wisest course of action is for all of us to be prepared for the worst case scenario,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Committee on Small Business. “Our nation can ill afford any economic setbacks, so entrepreneurs need to take steps now to prepare for this year’s flu season.”

Some estimates predict a full-blown flu pandemic could cost the U.S. economy up to $700 billion in lost productivity. Small businesses could be hit particularly hard as they generally have smaller work forces and could see their operations slowed down or even stopped if key employees have to call in sick.

CDC recently issued guidelines to help employers prepare and respond to potential flu outbreaks in the workplace. Among the recommendations, businesses are urged to cross-train employees to cover for sick co-workers, stagger shifts, and allow workers with flu symptoms – or those tending to a sick family member – to telecommute from home. CDC is expected to release similar recommendations specifically tailored to small businesses. Velázquez said that the government’s guidance for employers needs to take into account their size.

“Big companies usually have enough employees to continue operating, even when part of their work force grows ill,” Velázquez said. “That isn’t always the case for small businesses, so we cannot assume that solutions that work for big firms will work for small ones.”

During the hearing, private sector witnesses testified about how entrepreneurs are contributing to the nation’s response to the pandemic. Many of the most productive medical research companies are small firms, and members of Congress said companies like these would be instrumental as the nation races to develop and manufacture effective vaccines. Small health care providers will be equally important, serving as the frontline for diagnosing and treating H1N1, as well as distributing the vaccine to patients.

“Small health care providers have always been the core of our medical system as eighty percent of doctors’ office visits take place in a small practice,” Velázquez added. “These providers will be vital in distributing vaccinations and treating Americans who fall sick.”

The H1N1 flu virus first emerged last spring and quickly spread throughout the United States and around the world. Although the virus appears less lethal than initially feared, the U.S. government and health officials are undertaking massive preparations to respond to an expected resurgence in the virus this winter.

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