By Delroy Alexander

Small firms are increasingly pessimistic about the future, according to a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business.

The NFIB's September optimism index, which reflects the views of entrepreneurs both before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, hit its lowest level since 1993 immediately after the attacks in New York and Washington.

In the federation's first detailed analysis of the sector since Sept. 11, small-business optimism sank a full five points, to 94.2 from the pre-attack measure of 99.2, said William Dunkelberg, NFIB chief economist.

Following a buoyant 101.5 rating in August, the figures make grim reading, with 7 of the 10 key index components, including hiring plans, capital spending and sales expectations, falling significantly.

What worries Dunkelberg is that other market shocks, such as the stock market crash in October 1987, had no impact on the NFIB measure. At that time, small firms remained confident despite falling share prices.

That cannot be said this time around. The 1987 collapse in stock prices had "no real impact on the economy," Dunkelberg said. In sharp contrast, "the complete shutdown of the air transport system will have far-reaching effects on sales, well beyond the immediate impact on the travel and leisure industry," he added.

Help may come for small firms from policymakers currently debating an economic stimulus package.

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), has been meeting with industry lobby groups in a bid to come up with his own aid package, expected to be introduced Thursday. On Wednesday, Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) introduced accompanying legislation, the Small Business Emergency Relief Act.

Both want to broaden emergency relief beyond the New York and Washington areas directly hurt by the attacks.

Businesses such as suppliers and travel agents outside the disaster areas, but with direct links to them, will be specifically covered by Kerry's legislation, which also would extend help to firms requiring capital as a result of the slowdown elsewhere in the country.

The legislation would give small firms access to low-interest or no-cost recovery loans, grace periods for SBA loan payments and the forgiveness of some SBA loans by companies threatened with bankruptcy. Kerry has opted not to add tax incentives to the package in a bid to push the emergency aid through the Senate by the end of next week.

Firms would have to show that the slowdown in their business was "just cause, that the effects were outside of their control," according to Damon Dozier, director of government affairs for National Small Business United, one of the groups pushing for aid to the sector.

Minimum wage debate: Bills already introduced in the House and the Senate are looking to provide workers affected by the attacks with extended benefits.

One plan from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, would extend unemployment benefits, federal health insurance support and possibly increase the minimum wage by $1.50, to $6.65 per hour from $5.15.

The minimum wage proposal has spooked a number of small-business owners, who fear the potential impact of such a move.

"A minimum wage increase would increase costs for America's small-business owners and hurt young, low-skilled workers who might be priced out of the labor market," said Darrell McKigney, president of the Small Business Survival Committee.

New Web resource: Budding entrepreneurs looking for information on how to finance a business or project might want to search the online database of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago's Small Enterprise Capital Access Partnership initiative.

Launched Friday, www.secaponline.org was designed for small firms. It provides links to credit and financing resources and other vital areas, including community-based organizations, technical assistance providers, government organizations, trade associations and academic researchers.