NU Online News Service, March 28, 2005, 11:35 a.m. EST

Small businesses in the U.S. are optimistic about their growth and plan to enrich employee benefits and perks to help them handle it, a new survey by American Express Inc., New York, finds.

Overall, 44% of small businesses report plans to hire over the next 6 months, about the same as last year but up from 35% reported in spring 2003.

Amex found that businesses with hiring plans are more likely than others to offer paid vacations (59% vs. 52% of all respondents), paid holidays (57% vs. 50%) and flexible work hours (77% vs. 68%).

For firms overall, however, the number offering paid vacations has fallen to 52%, down from 56% last year; the number offering paid holidays has fallen to 50%, down from 57%; the number offering 401(k) plans has fallen to 20% from 28%; and the number of firms offering life insurance is now 17%, compared to 24% last year, Amex found.

Nonetheless, Amex reports that 85% of small businesses see growth opportunities for their companies over the next 6 months, well above the 72% who made that prediction last year and 56% in 2003.

In addition, 57% said they expect their revenues to exceed last year’s, while 35% expect revenues to remain steady. Only 7% expect revenues to fall short of last year’s.