Unemployment claims skyrocket as West Texas businesses close on the heels of COVID-19

EL PASO, Texas — Claims for unemployment benefits have skyrocketed in Far West Texas, as restaurant employees, store clerks and others lose hopes of going back to work soon amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of new claims in El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties nearly tripled in one week, going from 3,440 filed during the week ending March 21 to 9,546 on the week ending on March 28, according to Workforce Solutions Borderplex.

The regional partner agency of the Texas Workforce Commission recorded a total of 13,592 claims from March 1 to March 28. In February, only 1,354 people in the region had filed for benefits.

Nearly half of the newly unemployed just in El Paso County worked in food preparation/food service (3,203 or 31.51%) or in sales (1,172 or 11.53%). The next groups most heavily affected were administrative office support (914 or 8.99%) and management (899 or 8.84%), according to Workforce Solutions Borderplex data.

Border officials for the past two weeks have been saying that was to be expected due to stay-at-home orders, restrictions on the operation of restaurants, bars and retail stores and mandatory social distancing that bans crowds from gathering.

El Paso’s unemployment rate prior to the crisis only slightly trailed the U.S. average of 3.5%. Border officials are now saying they wouldn’t be surprised if it reaches double-digits in the coming months.

“We are getting a lot of questions from folks asking whether they might qualify or whether there are certain requirements. We are telling people right now the best thing to do is to just file, file for the unemployment,” said Leila Melendez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex.

The rest of Texas isn’t faring much better, as evidenced by the long waits to file a claim by telephone. “I know it’s hard to get through. We tell people to just keep trying,” Melendez said Tuesday in a teleconference hosted by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. “We are on Mountain Time, the majority of Texans live on Central Time, so we might have a better chance of getting access later in (the day).”

You can submit a claim to receive unemployment benefits by calling 1-800-939-6631 or login into the Texas Workforce Commission website. Melendez said filers should clearly state they became unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This disaster is expediting payments. The time for determining eligibility is 48 hours from filing (and) can expect to receive benefits in two weeks,” she said.

Melendez added that a host of workers are eligible for benefits during the pandemic.

“Independent contractors are eligible, they should file. Owners of small businesses — if they pay themselves as employees — also should file,” she said. “If an individual got reduced hours, they should also file for unemployment. Substitute teachers should file. I encourage people to just apply and select the event (the COVID-19 pandemic).”

While businesses have closed or curtailed operations throughout the city, Downtown El Paso has been particularly hit. Dozens of fashion, electronics and jewelry shops as well as wholesales and pawn shops that still rely heavily on Mexican visitors have closed, their hourly workers gone home.

“It’s very sad. They should find a solution,” said South El Paso resident Jose Luis Perez. “I used to shop at Dollar Tree, at JC Penney … but right now you can’t shop anywhere. Everything is closed.”

The retiree who rides a bicycle through Downtown said he’s not worried about his health or finances but feels bad about the workers sent home and their families. “I’m sad about all the people that are not getting paid right now,” he said.