Leila Melendez has spent her entire first year as CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex working under the cloud of the pandemic. She officially began on the evening of March 12, 2020, the same week that the pandemic arrived in El Paso.

Now, more than a year later, all eyes are on the workforce as the cloud dissipates, and the region and the rest of the country continue to get back to business.

In the borderland, that means Workforce Solutions Borderplex is busy as the agency works to keep in touch with what unemployed and employed individuals need, including training and child care.

Melendez took over the organization last year after former CEO Joyce Wilson retired. Wilson chose Melendez as her successor before retiring, and the two had previously worked together during Wilson’s tenure as El Paso city manager.

Melendez, 44, was born and raised in El Paso. She graduated from Bel Air High School and received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix. She earned an MBA from the University of Texas at El Paso. She has one daughter, who attends college in Seattle.

“My roots are deep here in this community,” Melendez said. “The family unit, who we are as a family, very much contributes to who I am today and who I’m trying to work for.”

Melendez previously worked at the city, including in the engineering and economic development departments.

She spent time last week talking to El Paso Inc. about her CEO role, what Workforce Solutions Borderplex is doing and how her leadership has been impacted by the strong figures in her life.

Q: When was your first day as CEO?

Per the contract, my first day was March 12, 2020. The contract says, “the evening of March 12.” Our attorney who drafted the contract didn’t want to put Friday the 13th as my first day. He thought it was a bad omen. 

But, that was a bad omen anyway. That ended up being the day we had the first COVID case in El Paso. 

Q: Your CEO tenure has been fully in this new pandemic world. What are some of the things Workforce Solutions Borderplex has done this year that maybe wouldn’t have been possible before?

We had done some things a few years ago. We started to look at and really pay attention to our customers and behaviors: who they are, where they are and why they are unemployed to begin with. 

A few years ago, we bought all the staff laptops. We said we wanted our staff to get out into the community, work with partners. If it’s more convenient to meet at a person’s children’s school, do it. 

We started the wheels in motion, but COVID overnighted that necessity and showed us it’s possible. 

The unwillingness or hesitancy was ours, in doing something different and thinking it wouldn’t be effective. And we proved to ourselves that’s not the case. 

COVID proved we can change our service delivery and be agile. Before, I think we thought that since we’re a quasi-governmental organization, we can’t move that quickly or have that agility. That’s not what government does. But it can. 

Getting people used to seeing us as an empowered organization to make those decisions, is new for people to think that way. A way for us to be more accessible to customers has been a big deal.

We had to learn to not only be a first responder to businesses and people on unemployment, but we also had to keep an ear to the ground. 

We were very much in reaction mode. And now we’re listening and not just coming to the table with a solution that we’re not quite sure will work. We’re asking, “How can we build this solution together, not just us but with partners?”

A lot of partner organizations have called on us and relied on us to get something done. We’ve partnered with school districts. We wanted to hire YISD students to make masks. We partnered with the Better Business Bureau on webinars on what businesses can do. We’ve partnered with the chambers of commerce, UTEP and EPCC.

Over the past year, it’s brought the economic development community together to say who can do what. It’s brought us all to the table in a much different and collaborative way, which has been fantastic. 

Q: What is the scope of things that fall under Workforce Solutions Borderplex and how is the organization funded? 

We’re a nonprofit but were formed as a nonprofit because of a mandate from the Department of Labor. The Department of Labor is the starting point, they have the majority of funding through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. 

They say that the federal government’s role is to support people on unemployment and get them back on their feet, by finding a job or training or both.

The Department of Labor money gets sent to states. States also have their own state funding for the same purpose. They match federal money with state money and send those funds to the regions. Here, our region is through the Workforce Development Board.

The funding we get specifically is to help a person get back into employment. 

The Texas Workforce Commission is like a department store. They’ve got unemployment, worker’s comp, all these different departments. We’re the checkout line. We are where people want to check out of the unemployment system and get back to a job and into the workforce.

We help them check out, find a job, match them with businesses here that are hiring. We have this outward relationship with businesses, and we’re talking to them about who they’re hiring, what kind of skills they need. We look through our unemployment or education system and try to find the best workers for jobs. We do that kind of matchmaking.  

Q: What does Workforce Borderplex Solutions do related to child care, and how is child care impacting pandemic recovery? 

That funding also comes from the federal government to states in the same way. Child care has been long understood by the workforce system that it’s an economic development driver. It’s the foundation of our economy. We didn’t realize it as a society till this year. I didn’t think we realized the magnitude of just how critical it is to our economy.

We pay a large portion of a family’s child care costs if they qualify. They qualify based on household income. If a family is low income, they qualify for subsidized child care. The parents still pay a portion, but we do as well. 

We also track their progress in their school or employment. As they work and increase wages, we track that also. We check on them every year to see what their income is and verify whether they have access to child care for another year or not. 

The goal is to get them such a good job that they can sustain themselves and their family and don’t need subsidized child care. That’s what we try to get to. 

The majority of all our workforce dollars is about $55 million. More than half of that, about 52%, is the cost of child care. It’s the largest part of our budget.

With COVID, the biggest impact was the closure of schools. Parents lost jobs, had to be home and couldn’t afford their portion of child care. So they stayed home and took care of the kids. 

A lot of child care facilities lost their businesses. Or they could only care for so many kids because of distancing guidelines. It was a huge impact to families. 

We’re trying to help parents and help child care providers make those changes to their facilities so they increase capacity. More sanitation, better equipment and supplies – fix them up so they can bring more kids in and the parents of those kids can go back to work. 

We contract out all of our services, so the child care is contracted by the YWCA. 

Q: Has Workforce seen a rise in unemployment scams? 

It seems like there are different scams every day. We had this rush by the federal government and the states last year, trying to get money into the hands of people so they could stabilize. These processes are lengthy; it could take a few weeks to get unemployment benefits. We didn’t have that luxury and needed to get funding immediately.

A lot of the controls were relaxed; then we’d go back and fix. In that time frame, a lot of money goes out. People are filing unemployment claims in other people’s names just to see what they could get. This was across the country. 

There have been data breaches for years from different places, from private credit card companies or Target or Wells Fargo, whatever. That data is out there, and scammers are using as much of that data as possible – not just domestically but internationally. 

People were finding out pretty quickly. First, the company gets a notice that says a former employee filed a claim and that they worked for you. The employee would also get a letter at home. Somebody would raise a flag. 

We’d get a lot of calls from businesses that would say they got claims from people still working or from people who never worked there.

TWC is still very much catching up on those investigations. If there’s been a fraud claim, they slam on the brakes. Typically, those are caught very early. 

There’s no penalty. You don’t get blacklisted or penalized if someone fraudulently filed something (in your name). The person gets in trouble if they can find who did it.  

Q: What’s the status of your move into the new Workforce offices in the restored Blue Flame building? 

Our desks and furniture have been set up since last summer. We started to let people slowly access the building and their offices after the holidays. People check in, take temperatures and stuff like that. We committed to after the July 4 holiday when we’ll go back to the office. But we’re going to be on a hybrid schedule. 

We’ve identified which job functions could stay remote, which would have office presence. It’s forcing us as an organization to think differently. 

I promised the employees: Let’s give this a shot. July 6, we’re going to try this system out. No later than the end of the calendar year we can determine which jobs could stay remote and which can stay hybrid. 

Q: What was the transition like from Joyce Wilson’s leadership to yours? 

I was her chief of staff for a few years when she was city manager. When I was at the city, I worked in the engineering department for a year, running the administrative division. 

She started with the Workforce board, started a reorganization and then recruited for finance/administration director for the board. There were a lot of changes at the city, and I thought it might be a good time to make a change as well. 

She hired me on at Workforce, and I managed the administrative departments and learned the ins and outs of the Workforce system. 

I learned so much from her as a leader, change-maker, she really is a change agent. She sees operations of how a social organization is supposed to function for the community. She taught me to see that from that perspective. The changes we made were all about how we serve the customer better. 

I learned the discipline it takes, the stamina it takes to run a large and small organization, the patience, and emotional intelligence it takes. It’s not the widgets; it’s the people. You need to look at it from, “How do we help people, not just our customers but also our employees, work at their best?” That means identifying what they like to do best and their skills, and put those to good use.

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