Commentary/18″/cw1st/dt2nd By BRAD SHERMAN The date is Dec. 31, 1999 just a few minutes before midnight. John owns a small business that manufactures the hot toys of this holiday season. As his friends celebrated the New Year, John sat in his study worrying and thinking about the Year 2000 and the “Y2K Bug.” He had done nothing to prepare for Y2K and wondered whether he would still be able to order inventory from his suppliers, use his billing system, or calculate the wages that his employees earned last year. If current trends continue, John’s dilemma could be a familiar scene a year from now. When most people think of the Year 2000 problem, they think of banks, corporations, and government agencies, but not the toy store down the street or the drug store a couple of blocks over. As a result, a surprisingly low number of small businesses have taken action to protect themselves from “the millennium bug.” In a recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, almost one-third of small-firm employers vulnerable to the Y2K problem reported they “still have no plans to assess their risks of falling prey to the millennium bug. Another 5 percent of those surveyed aren’t aware of the Y2K problem at all.” In a recent Gallup Poll, 83 percent of those polled believed that the Y2K problem would cause minor problems or no problems at all for them personally. Even with the intense press coverage the Y2K problem has received, many small-business owners don’t think the problem will affect their business. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether it is the Federal Reserve’s ominous warning that anywhere from 1 percent to 7 percent of American businesses will fail because of the problem or the countless features in the popular media, the warning signs are all around us. The Year 2000 Problem presents serious issues that must be addressed by large and small businesses alike. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses should be concerned not only with their own business computer systems, but “the business supply chain.” As the SBA explains on its Web page (www.sba.gov/y2k), “You buy goods and services from some businesses, and you sell goods and services to others. If your trading partners fail, your cash flow can suffer critically.” The SBA also warns that, in addition to the financial impact, because the problem is foreseeable, directors of businesses who fail to take action could potentially be held personally liable in shareholder suits. While the Year 2000 problem can be intimidating, the news is not all bad. There is still time to act, and there are an abundance of resources available to us to evaluate our own vulnerability to a Year 2000 problem. Because of the widespread focus on the problem, a number of useful Web sites have been set up to assist small-business owners in assessing their vulnerability, organizing a plan, and taking action. One of the most helpful sites is the Small Business Administration’s Web site, which contains checklists, charts, and all of the resources a small business needs to evaluate its risk and remedy the problem. The SBA also has set up a toll-free number, (877) 789-2565, from which you can request that information be automatically faxed to you. Other government Web sites with helpful information include the Department of Commerce’s Web page (www.doc.gov) and the Web page for The President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion (www.y2k.gov). If you are interested in questions about specific software or hardware products, you may want to check the Web sites of some of the major software and computer manufacturers, many of which have set up sites to address issues raised by their products and the Year 2000 problem in general. While the Year 2000 problem is a serious threat to small businesses, there is no shortage of helpful fact sheets, Web sites, and checklists available. As individuals, it is crucial that each of us assess our own Year 2000 vulnerability and take a proactive approach to addressing this very serious problem. Brad Sherman is a U.S. congressman representing the 24th District, which takes in the west San Fernando Valley and parts of eastern Ventura County.