From the January 2005 issue of Entrepreneur

That Bites

COBRA, the federal act that lets workers temporarily continue drawing health insurance when they switch jobs, has been taken for granted by businesses. But over the past year, the federal government has changed important aspects of COBRA-changes slipping under small firms' radar.

"Ninety percent of companies are not compliant with the new COBRA regulations," says Eric Raymond, CEO of Corporate Synergies Inc., a Mount Laurel, New Jersey, employee benefits consulting firm. "It's impossible to stay on top of changes."

Entrepreneurs can't afford not to pay attention. Employers must now give employees a written notice explaining COBRA, which only affects firms with more than 20 employees. These notices must be sent within 90 days of an employee joining the health plan. Once an individual becomes eligible for COBRA, the employer must send him or her another written notice laying out COBRA rights.

Still, entrepreneurs don't have to throw up their hands. "Find an outside broker who monitors and does [COBRA] compliance for you," says Raymond. Choose a broker who offers an errors and omissions policy-if the broker makes an error, the company can't be blamed.

Export Advice

Small exporters are one of the fastest-growing segments of American entrepreneurs, but many smaller companies are still afraid of operating overseas, where red tape, unfamiliar customs and other problems can stretch an entrepreneur's resources. Indeed, although small companies comprise more than 95 percent of all U.S. firms, they account for less than 30 percent of America's total exports, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Help is on the way. The Department of Commerce is reaching out to smaller exporters with its new trade website, Export.gov, which includes a monthly publication detailing export information on a range of important markets. And now, the Department of Commerce has linked up with FedEx to help smaller companies in a collaborative effort to guide small and midsize businesses into foreign markets.

Under this initiative, if a FedEx customer is looking for extra skills and research on foreign markets, FedEx employees will refer them to U.S. Commercial Service officers in the United States and overseas.

These officers will then provide the entrepreneurs with a range of detailed information on the foreign markets that seem most appropriate, giving entrepreneurs the kind of specific information usually only available to larger companies. "We're combining forces," says FedEx's Jim McCluskey. "They're getting both FedEx's support and U.S. Commercial Service's knowledge."


33%
of U.S. workers don't meet the minimum writing requirements of their jobs.
Statistic Source: College Board's National Commission on Writing


The proportion of California workers 65 years or older increased
2.9%
between 1992 and 2001.
Statistic Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Joshua Kurlantzick is a writer in Washington, DC.