El Paso’s jobless rate ticked down by half a percentage point in May as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started reopening the economy and some employers boosted payrolls.

According to the latest report by Workforce Solutions Borderplex, the El Paso County unemployment rate edged down to 14.5% in May from 15% the month before.

“It’s a good sign that there is some movement,” said Leila Melendez, chief executive of Workforce Solutions Borderplex. “It is scary when there is no movement.”

While the unemployment rate remains at a historic high, with about 1 in 7 El Paso County workers remaining out of work, the May numbers mark a significant change from the bruising job losses in March and April.

El Paso employers shed 10,746 positions in March and a stunning 60,147 in April as the COVID-19 pandemic and related business closures tore through the economy, the data show.

“It’s unprecedented,” Melendez said. “The last time we were even near this (unemployment rate) was in 1991, and that was when it was about 13%.”

She added that during the last economic crisis, the 2008 Great Recession, the unemployment rate peaked at about 10%.

“The difference, though, is we anticipate there is going to be some return to business,” she said. “It is going to be different business, but there is going to be some return.”

Even so, Melendez expects the unemployment rate to hover where it is now at least through July. As restrictions were eased and some businesses opened at reduced capacity, the health crisis still kept many people at home. It also takes time for businesses to ramp up their operations.

“It’s almost like starting up again,” Melendez says.

And a surge in COVID-19 cases in Texas has complicated the economic outlook as Gov. Abbott paused the state’s reopening last week.

Another factor that could impact the employment numbers going forward: The extra federal unemployment benefit that has been a lifeline for some Americans during the pandemic expires July 31. The CARES Act significantly expanded unemployment insurance, providing an additional $600 per week for the unemployed. Losing that benefit would cause pain among millions of families but could also drive more people back into the workforce.

“Until that goes away, people are being taken care of at least in the short term,” Melendez said. “They have some relief.”


Email Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com.

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