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Layoffs lead to fewer corporate blood donors

/ Source: The Associated Press

Before the recession hit, Jacksonville's blood bank would pull its buses up to the Anheuser-Busch brewery and pump 300 units of blood from employees.

Then came buyouts, retirements and layoffs. During the company's last blood drive, the Blood Alliance only collected about 45 units.

Which is why, on a recent day, the organization's bloodmobile was parked in a driving rainstorm outside a small law firm. With the smell of latex gloves in the air, donors read the paper and listened to soft rock on the radio as workers pricked their arms with needles.

"We have to do smaller blood drives," explained John Helgren, a spokesman for the Blood Alliance. "We have to work harder to get blood these days."

In some hard-hit pockets of the United States, from Florida to Michigan to Southern California, blood centers are noticing a pattern: corporate drives are attracting fewer donors, likely because of the economy.

America's overall blood supply is adequate to cover local shortages, but in some areas a majority of blood is donated during workplace drives because people tend to give where it's convenient. When workers are laid off or aren't replaced after retirements and buyouts, there are fewer donors. The employees who are left don't feel like they can take the time to give, or don't feel like it. That leaves blood banks scrambling.

"We are seeing a direct effect of the recession," said Toni Gould, spokeswoman for Michigan Community Blood Centers, which has seen a 15 percent to 20 percent drop this summer. Michigan's unemployment rate of 15.6 percent is the highest in the U.S. "So many businesses and factories are closing, and they accounted for a large share of mobile drives."

It's a similar story in Wisconsin, where a spokeswoman from the Badger-Hawkeye Red Cross says 33 corporate drives were canceled from June through August, resulting in 1,700 fewer units collected. The state's unemployment rate of 8.7 percent has doubled in the last year.

And Florida Blood Services in Tampa — where the unemployment rate is 11.3 percent — had to import several thousand units of blood to cover an August shortfall. Spokesman Dan Eberts said employees at some companies are also working from home — or traveling to countries like India, where new headquarters have been set up. That makes them temporarily ineligible to donate because it's possible they were exposed to a blood-borne disease. And the workers who survive layoffs often aren't in a giving mood.

"Some people were like, 'And now you want my blood?'" Eberts said.

While certain areas report a decline in donations, the American Red Cross says there hasn't yet been a significant drop overall — but that might be changing.

Blood drives cancelled

Many businesses are canceling blood drives, and the Red Cross is starting to see fewer donors than in previous months, said Stephanie Millian, the organization's director of biomedical communication. But she noted that it's too soon to tell if it's a seasonal shift, or one caused by the poor economy.

The decline in blood donation in some areas coincides with an overall decline in corporate charity. For example, United Way spokeswoman Sally Fabens said that in 2008, workplace campaigns declined 4.5 percent from the previous year — and corporate gifts to the organization declined 3.9 percent.

Some blood centers say summer donations are always down because of vacations and closed high schools, where drives are often held. Also, the eligible donor population keeps shrinking as people visit exotic, malaria-ridden locales or get tattoos — people who get inked often can't give blood for a year because of possible infections. In general, the Red Cross has tightened its criteria for donors in the past 10 years or so.

The Red Cross of Southern California saw its corporate donations dip earlier in the year, and suspected it was because layoffs. So the group started using a machine that collects twice as many red blood cells from donors and changed how it schedules blood drives.

"I don't want to say were in a fabulous situation," spokesman Nick Samaniego said. "We're not in a crisis situation — but we're not exactly where we want to be."

Many locations say the drop in donations correlates with a drop in usage — if people move away it generally means there are fewer people left in the community who might need blood. But in Jacksonville, blood usage is up, said the Blood Alliance's Helgren.

On the recent day outside of the law firm — in a building with a dozen other small businesses — about 15 people had signed up.

"There's some peer pressure to donate in our firm, because everybody knows the partners always donate," said lawyer Heath Brockwell, as he squeezed a red rubber ball to get his vein primed for donating.

Despite the incentive to be entered into a raffle for tickets to the Florida-Georgia football game, the Blood Alliance collected just seven pints of blood in three hours from the building's employees.

The Alliance provides blood to hospitals — and Helgren says officials are struggling to fill a critical shortage of rare O negative blood, which can be transfused into anyone.

"And we can't always rely on other blood banks to help us out," he said.

The increased unemployment has helped one segment of the blood industry, though: For-profit plasma centers, which pay up to $200 a month if a person sells plasma twice a week, have seen a jump in business. There were 15 million plasma donations in 2007, and that jumped to 18.8 million in 2008, according to their trade group. Plasma, the fluid part of blood, is generally used to treat burn victims and to create prescription drugs.