Opinion: Family Business and Coronavirus Fears

By Dale G. Caldwell
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The coronavirus pandemic has impacted more lives than any other crisis in recent U.S. history. Tragically, this ailment has led to the death of some patients who were already suffering from an illness. Unfortunately, the damage to society extends beyond these deaths because the panic about the virus has reached epic proportions. The stock market has had its worst slide since 1987. Multiple professional sports leagues have closed down for the first time in history. Broadway theaters have been closed and conferences in every state have been canceled. Consumer spending on travel and entertainment has dropped exponentially. Most people recognize that this crisis will have a negative impact on the economy. However, few people realize that coronavirus fears are having a devastating impact on a unique group of businesses that provide the most jobs in the country.

These businesses, which represent the biggest component of the global economy, have been overlooked by policy makers, ignored by politicians and rarely studied by economists. Family businesses, many of whom are being driven to the brink of failure by coronavirus fears, are suffering because they are “hidden in plain sight.” People spend a large percentage of their money with family businesses yet they don’t know anything about them or even how they survive with small profit margins. More importantly, the proposed coronavirus relief measures proposed by Congress ignore the need to help family businesses continue to provide the majority of jobs in the United States.

There are more than 5.5 million family businesses in the United States. These businesses are responsible for 57% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employ more than 98 million people, or 63% of the workforce. Unfortunately, most family businesses are “mom and pop” enterprises that, because they receive very little tax and regulation relief, have very thin profit margins. These businesses are the largest employers in the United States, yet their needs are rarely discussed in Washington, D.C., because they do not have the “extra” money that big businesses and unions have to hire influential lobbyists.

Family businesses, because their margins are thin and they cannot afford staff turnover, treat employees better than more profitable companies because they cannot afford to lose employees. Many of these businesses pay a higher percentage of employee health care costs than big businesses and unions. Family businesses often treat employees like “family” and pay for medical bills and funeral expenses of the family members of employees. If the coronavirus fears continue, and there is no economic relief provided directly to family businesses, thousands of local businesses will close, millions of American jobs will be lost, and many individuals will be pushed into poverty.

The legislation that Congress is offering does a good job of guaranteeing free coronavirus testing, securing paid emergency leave for coronavirus-related absences, enhancing unemployment insurance, strengthening food security programs and increasing federal Medicaid funding to states. However, these provisions will not help family businesses losing revenue because of coronavirus fears continue to provide much needed jobs and health care to American employees. To address this major crisis, I believe that the President and Congress should develop “Family Business Recovery” initiatives that do the following three things:

1. Provide tax credits to family and small businesses that hire new employees during the current pandemic emergency.

2. Approve job retention loans to family and small businesses to prevent business failures and the laying off of employees.

3. Establish a Family Business Certification (like veteran, women-owned and minority certifications) that identifies family owned businesses where two or more family members work full-time in the business. This will identify businesses that can benefit from policies supporting the growth of the major job creators in the country.

The coronavirus is clearly a serious health emergency. However, coronavirus fears are causing significant damage to the U.S. economy. When the economy “sneezes,” family business get a “cold.” Now that the economy has a metaphorical “cold,” family businesses are getting “pneumonia.” If the government does not provide much needed support directly to family businesses, the country and the state will be in the midst of an economic crisis for years to come, even if the coronavirus is contained.

Dr. Dale G. Caldwell (dcaldwell@fdu.edu) is a professor and the executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He teaches family business management and is the host of the TV show Family Business World.

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