Benny Award winner gets baptism by fire as she takes on HR role amid pandemic

2020 Benny Award winner Talika Johnson is the director of administrative services for the city of Azusa, California.
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Making the switch to a new career can be a daunting task on its own, but combining that with a global pandemic can make the transition insurmountable. Yet it was a challenge that Talika Johnson, director of administrative services for the city of Azusa, California, met head on.

Johnson is responsible for leading both the finance department and the human resources department for Azusa, which has a population of almost 50,000. She works with the city’s employees, making sure they have access to pay and retirement resources, while doing her best to save the city money and stay on a tight budget.

Johnson, who is a 2020 Employee Benefit News Benny Award winner for retirement, had been running the finance department for three years, but expanded into HR in late 2019, leaving her little time to switch gears before a global pandemic upended human resources departments across the country. Johnson’s entrance into the benefits world would be a baptism by fire.

“The pressure of transitioning from a mostly finance background to having to solve things that arise from human need is not easy,” Johnson says. “As a new HR director, especially when your current agency recognizes you mostly in your role as the finance person, the transition will naturally be more heavily scrutinized.”

As Johnson took on the responsibilities of the HR department, she found that much of the workforce had difficulty understanding her new position as their chief liaison for employee/employer relations. She worked hard to show employees that her finance background would allow her to look at various situations through a unique lens and figure out how to best support employees without costing the city.

“I've had to work a little harder to ensure employees that I'm in it for the long haul and also have their best interest in mind in terms of employee-employer relations,” Johnson says.

She would be faced with an uphill battle because of the financial stress caused by the pandemic.

In March, just before the pandemic forced everyone to work from home, the city of Azusa saw six labor contracts expire. It was up to Johnson to negotiate some new deals. The negotiations ended up stalling, and when things got going again, Johnson suggested waiting even longer, to gauge the full financial impact of the pandemic.

“Well, they didn't like that,” Johnson says of the feedback she received from the labor groups. “So I had to get creative.”

As the months dragged on and negotiations continued, the labor groups Johnson was working with pressured the city to provide a cost of living pay increase, something the city couldn’t justify during a pandemic, especially when other city employees were losing their jobs. Typically the city employees about 400 employees, but during the crisis the number has dropped to 310 through layouts and attrition.

With that in mind, Johnson tapped her financial background to strike a deal that would increase retirement plan contributions instead.

“We encouraged employees to maximize their annual contributions to 457 Deferred Compensation accounts. Throughout the year we coordinate one-on-one meetings with our deferred compensation representative and employees so they can discuss retirement savings goals,” Johnson says.

The plan was a less costly solution for Azusa, but still provides employees with financial security.

“The city contributes funds for all of our groups at various levels into their deferred compensation on a monthly basis. So that was one of the areas where I really had to educate them on the benefit of that contribution from the city,” Johnson says. “In addition to that, we were able to get some other groups to agree to an HRA account. I tried to beef up the retirement benefits within their contracts in lieu of a cost of living increase.”

Providing education on the importance of employee benefits, especially when it comes to retirement, is one of the most rewarding parts of her new role in HR, Johnson says.

“That's one of the things that I find really fascinating — trying to convince employees [of the importance of] these types of retirement programs, like maximizing your 457 contribution and implementing the 401(k),” Johnson says. “So educating [employees] on the importance of [having retirement accounts] is the part I find really interesting and fun.”

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Retirement benefits Retirement planning 401(k) Retirement education Financial wellness Benny awards