Complying with federal Affordable Care Act mandates was the top concern among the nation's small businesses according to a survey released yesterday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber's second quarter 2013 small business outlook survey found anxiety about the healthcare bill increased 10 percentage points since June 2011, and four points since the previous quarterly survey.

Only 30% of small businesses said they were prepared for the law's requirements, with 71% saying those requirements make it more difficult to hire new employees.

'Worse every day'

“The impact of the healthcare law on small business gets worse with every day that passes,” said Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s senior vice president and national political director.

“As we approach the 2014 elections, we will hold members of Congress accountable for votes on policies that paralyze growth and job creation. And healthcare will be a defining issue for the business community.”

Most of the ACA's requirements will go into effect on January 1, 2014, although the Obama Administration recently delayed -- until 2015 -- penalizing employers with 50 or more employees who do not provide benefits that comply with the law.

Hiring consequences

Of those small businesses impacted by the employer mandate, half said they will either cut hours to reduce full time employees or replace those employees with part timers. 

Another 24% said they will reduce hiring to stay under 50 employees and avoid the "play or pay" mandate.

Overall, the national hiring outlook remains grim, with the majority (61%) of small businesses saying they do not have plans to hire next year.

Over three-quarters of survey respondents thought the U.S. economy was on the wrong track, citing over-regulation and economic uncertainty.

Regulatory issues

Small business owners voiced support for polices that would remove regulatory barriers and encourage growth, with 88% supporting action to address entitlement spending, and 81%  responding that the immigration system was broken and needed reform.

“Excessive regulation is having a crippling effect on job growth among small businesses,” Engstrom said.

“In fact, the only thing that scares small businesses more than the current business climate is what Washington bureaucrats will do next. Today’s tough economic climate demands leadership on today’s big issues.”