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U.S. urges firms to brace for flu

September 16, 2009|Nathan Olivarez-Giles

When his only employee got sick and had to miss 14 months of work, Sandy Chase ran Record Collector, a purveyor of rare and vintage vinyl, alone.

"This is a two-man operation," Chase said from his Hollywood store. "It's been that way for 36 years."

If his archivist, Henry Gastelum, were to get sick again during the upcoming flu season, Chase says, he would do the same thing.

"If we were to both go down? I'd close the shop up."

He's got no plan for facing the coming flu season, Chase said, other than to frequently wash his hands and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

But with the threat of widespread infection from the H1N1 virus looming over the fall and winter, the federal government Monday warned that small businesses such as Chase's could be devastated if owners did not develop detailed contingency plans.

In a report distributed online and to chambers of commerce nationwide, the Department of Homeland Security and the Small Business Administration offered guidelines for making it through an outbreak, including the suggestion that employees get paid time off to care for sick children.

"The H1N1 flu is still out there and people are still getting sick and some have died," SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang said.

"People don't even want to think about this gloom and doom, but they have to, and particularly small-business owners, because they stand to lose so much more than a major corporation."

This fall, as the flu season kicks in, the combination of seasonal flu and H1N1 could knock out many employees, costing businesses more as they pay for workers' sick days and temporary replacements, Chastang said. Because small businesses have few employees, they can be disproportionately affected when illness strikes, she said.

In the U.S. as of Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 9,079 hospitalizations and 593 deaths related to H1N1.

Most small businesses lack a backup plan on how to deal with H1N1 or any other type of disaster, Chastang said.

Olga Mizrahi, owner of Ohso Design in Long Beach, said losing a worker for an extended period to the H1N1 virus could be damaging.

"It's a huge impact whenever one of us is unable to work for an extended period of time," she said. "Sick or not, your deadlines don't change."

Even so, Mizrahi said, she hadn't thought about H1N1 as a threat to her business and had not developed a plan.

The Homeland Security Report, which can be downloaded at www.sba.gov/flu, says businesses should have a written plan of what to do if H1N1 hits; a flexible sick-day schedule; and procedures for allowing employees to work from home.

Other tips include:

* Identify a workplace coordinator who will handle any H1N1-related issues and their effect on your business;

* Make sure the workplace coordinator has contacted the local health department and healthcare providers in advance, so responding to the virus is quick and easy to do;

* Identify essential employees, business functions and operations;

* Establish an emergency communications plan that includes backup contacts.

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nathan.olivarezgiles@latimes.com

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