Road to recovery is uncertain for America’s small and medium-sized businesses

Harder hit than their peers in metro areas, rural businesses expect that recovery could take two years or more

The prolonged economic impacts of COVID-19 are wearing on small and medium-sized businesses as owners report more uncertainty about when and how they may recover, according to a new report from Principal Financial Group®. The Principal Financial Well-Being IndexSM highlights difficulties particularly for those businesses in rural communities.

The research tracks how the latest surge of coronavirus infections is weighing heavily on small and medium-sized businesses and impacting how they’re preparing for the near future. Principal® has been following the impact of COVID-19 on these businesses—and how they’re adapting—since last Spring, comparing results over time.

Small businesses see help on the way

While the country grapples with the resurgence of COVID-19 cases and restrictions, survey participants are more concerned and cautious about the economic outlook than in September of 20201. 46% of businesses surveyed reported to be fully operational with about one in every four businesses saying they’re uncomfortable with their current cash flow situation. However, as they consider the next 12 months, 71% expect some level of improvement in their finances. Some attribute this cautious optimism to the vaccine and government support that may alleviate the situation.

Amy Friedrich, president of US Insurance Solutions at Principal, believes that while the COVID-19 vaccine will be a big help, it isn't going to be a quick and easy fix. “With just a few weeks of the new year under our belts, it’s clear that 2021 will continue to be a bumpy road,” said Friedrich. “Small business relief programs should continue to support stability but certain sectors may need more support to see any 2021 growth. Patience, creativity, and continued resilience will likely be key traits for businesses in what could be an uneven recovery year.”

Greater challenges in rural America

The most recent survey results highlight discrepancies between how rural and metro small and medium-sized businesses are being impacted by the continued economic challenges of COVID-19. Less than a quarter of rural businesses reported being fully operational compared to almost half of metro respondents. A third of rural businesses believe their local economy is declining in comparison to 18% of metro businesses. And 61% of rural businesses feel unsupported or impartial to federal government policies or initiatives designed to help their businesses2 compared to 36% of metro counterparts3

Rural business owners also anticipate recovery to take much longer with a majority saying it could take two years or more. Among metro business owners, the majority anticipates recovery within the next year. Despite these challenges, rural businesses are investing like their metro counterparts in driving their business forward amid the extraordinary circumstances—focusing on improving customer satisfaction (30%), offering a new product or a new line of service (22%), and creating or improving their website, apps and social media channels (15%).

Small businesses are facing big decisions

Throughout the pandemic, business owners have remained focused on the health and well-being of their employees. During this last survey, top priorities included the health of their employees and themselves (42%), supporting employees emotionally and mentally during this time (32%), and paying employees’ salaries and benefits (29%).

Although 70% of the respondents said they made no changes to their benefits offering4 (81% were businesses with less than 500 employees), many indicate they are shifting priorities in 2021 by adding or increasing benefits such as telehealth services (31%), Employee Assistance Programs (28%), and childcare support (27%). Due to these changes, some are considering pulling back other benefits. Those businesses with two to 499 employees are willing to decrease or drop long-term care insurance (15%), while their bigger counterparts—those with 500 or more employees—are willing to give up benefits such as hospital indemnity (18%).

“When employers listen to employees and adapt, there are naturally going to be trade-off decisions. Part of the work business owners do is effectively make these trade-off decisions—and continue to make them as employees’ needs evolve and the environment changes,” said Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president of specialty benefits at Principal. “Employers are making changes to best position their business and employees for success. These adaptations are just one more way small businesses are demonstrating their nimbleness and resilience during these unprecedented times.”

To see more survey results, view the full report (PDF).

News Release Contact

Insurance & Group Benefits

Paula McCarty, 515-248-0417

1 For businesses with less than 500 employees, the percentage went up seven points from 33% in September.

2 29% unsupported and 32% neither supported nor unsupported.

3 18% unsupported and 18% neither supported nor unsupported.

4 From March to December 2020.