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Utahns ‘bleed’ to make ends meet

Selling plasma is but one way many cope with tight budgets

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The lifeblood in Christine Lee's paycheck flows only so far, so she's selling some of her own to fill the gap.

The Salt Lake resident says she regularly sells her plasma to make ends meet.

"I get paid every two weeks, which makes it hard in between checks," said Lee, 37, who works two part-time jobs because she's having trouble finding full-time work with benefits.

A number of Utahns, be they looking for ways to pay higher gas and food prices, or simply picking up a little "comic book money," as one Salt Lake chef puts it, are following her lead.

Four Salt Lake County plasma centers told the Deseret News that a downturned economy means an upturn in business. Walk-ins for one have risen as much as 50 percent, from 400 or 450 clients a week in 2007 to 550 or 600 a week now.

"Everyone needs money," said one employee who asked not to be named.

ZLB Plasma corporate offices didn't return a request for an interview. A spokesman for Grifols Biomat USA refused to be interviewed for this story because he says his company is in the lifesaving business, not the supplemental income business. Plasma, taken from the blood, is used to make medications to treat hemophilia and immune deficiency diseases.

Still, a sign outside a downtown Biomat location blares, "Cash Today!" and up to $275 a month for giving "life-saving plasma."

College student Dylan Hall responded last week to a similar ad seen on TV. But he didn't make it to the giving chair. The place was too packed.

"I'm planning on coming in next Thursday," Hall said. "I could use the extra money, and it helps people in the process. No bad in that."

Plasma clinics, which pay around $40 cash for the first donation and allow up to two donations per week (the second usually pays more), aren't the only places people are turning to for extra money. They increasingly are selling their rings, gold teeth and electronic scrap to Cascade Refining in West Valley City.

"Easily tripled, I would say, would be fairly accurate," vice president Chris Wright estimated of the jump in business over the past nine months. While he attributes some of it to soaring commodity prices, "there is usually somewhat of a relationship there" to an economic downturn, too, he said.

Discount stores also are doing well. Dollar Tree reported first-quarter same-store sales — a key retail indicator — are up 2.1 percent from the previous year, driven by food, health and beauty care, and party supplies.

Costco same-store sales were up 4 percent in the United States excluding gas price inflation, according to the company's quarterly report issued Friday.

Meanwhile, first-quarter sales at upscale stores Gap and Nordstrom fell 11 percent and 6.5 percent.

"Instead of the mall, I'd rather go to Target or Wal-Mart or something," Kearns resident Stephanie Wilson said. "Every little bit helps."

Even a local Great Clips, where a haircut costs between $10 and $13 — one-fifth the cost of a trim at a more upscale salon — is seating more walk-ins.

"I think it's probably because we just do the haircut and not the style, unless they want a style," Jordan Landing Great Clips owner Susie Ajer said. A style costs an extra $12. "It's reasonable."

But payday lenders, to which some turn to help make ends meet, report no change in the number of loan applications or loan delinquency rates from a year ago, said Cort Walker, spokesman for the Utah Consumer Lending Association.

"It is the Utah Consumer Lending Association's observation that local consumers are choosing to use Cash Advance Loans responsibly," Walker said.

Still, more than a quarter of low-income residents surveyed by Crossroads Urban Center say they've turned to a high interest rate payday lender to pay for health care or medicine in the past year, social justice advocate Adam Burgett said.

About 700 people coming to the nonprofit's food pantry were interviewed for the study.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com