By Matthew Perrone, AP Business Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal officials said Monday small business owners should be prepared to operate with fewer employees this fall as swine flu spreads across the country.
The Department of Homeland Security is issuing guidelines on combating swine flu to small businesses, which employ about half the workers in the U.S. private sector.
"They play a key role in protecting the health and safety of the country but also their own employees and also helping us limit impact of an H1N1 pandemic on our economy and our country," Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano told reporters.
A guidebook released by the Department of Homeland Security recommends small businesses identify their essential operations and have plans for operating with reduced staffing. The government also says businesses should consider letting employees work from home if they get sick.
Napolitano said small businesses could be particularly vulnerable to a pandemic because they often "have fewer resources, they work with leaner staffs and absenteeism can be a particular issue."
Monday's announcement is the latest in a series of recommendations as the federal government braces for a potentially virulent outbreak this fall, which could hurt businesses by keeping workers at home.
The swine flu virus has caused more than 3,000 deaths since it emerged in Mexico and the U.S. this year and became a global epidemic, according to the World Health Organization. Most deaths have been in the Western Hemisphere.
Dr. Daniel Jernigan of the Centers for Disease Control said small businesses may need to change their leave policies to allow employees stay home longer if they become sick. He recommended workers stay home for at least 24 hours after their fever has subsided.
The CDC is preparing for two scenarios: one in which the swine flu remains relatively mild and another where the virus mutates, becoming more dangerous. Jernigan said small business owners should be prepared for both scenarios, though he added, "we haven't seen any changes that suggest greater severity."