Main Federal Pay Schedules and Systems
The General Schedule is the federal government’s main pay system that sets the pay rates for employees in most white-collar positions not at the senior executive or other senior levels. The General Schedule is composed of 15 grades, or salary levels. Each grade includes 10 steps through which employees advance based on satisfactory job performance and length of service. For all GS grades, the waiting periods to be advanced to each higher step (that is, qualifying for a “within-grade increase”) are as follows: 52 calendar weeks to be advanced to steps 2, 3, and 4; 104 calendar weeks to be advanced to steps 5, 6, and 7; and 156 calendar weeks to be advanced to steps 8, 9, and 10 (see 5 CFR 531.405). Performance-based “quality step increases” also are allowed. See Section 4 of this chapter.
Position classification standards, developed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), are the legal basis for determining the series and grade—and consequently the pay—for the majority of GS positions. In most cases, a GS employee’s basic pay reflects the pay rate specified for the position’s grade and step in the locality where the worker is employed. Disputes over the classification of a GS position that cannot be resolved within the agency can be referred to OPM by either the employee or the agency. OPM’s decision is final. See Position Classification Appeals in Chapter 10, Section 1.
General Schedule jobs commonly are referred to according to one of the “PATCO” (for professional, administrative, technical, clerical, and other) occupational categories:
Professional—Requires knowledge in a field of science or learning characteristically acquired through education or training pertinent to the specialized field, as distinguished from general education. The work of a professional occupation requires the exercise of discretion, judgment, and personal responsibility for the application of an organized body of knowledge that is constantly studied to make new discoveries and interpretations, and to improve the data, materials and methods.
Administrative—Involves the exercise of analytical ability, judgment, discretion, and personal responsibility, and application of a substantial body of knowledge, principles, concepts, and practices applicable to one or more fields of administration or management. While these positions do not require specialized education majors, they do involve the types of skills (analytical, research, writing, judgment) typically gained through a college level general education or through progressively responsible experience.
Technical—Involves work that is non-routine in nature and is typically associated with, and in support of, a professional or administrative field. Such occupations involve extensive practical knowledge gained through on-the-job experience or specific training less than by college graduation. Work in these occupations may involve substantial elements of the professional or administrative field but require less competence in the field involved.
Clerical—Involves structured work in support of office, business, field, or fiscal operations; duties are performed in accordance with established policies, experience or working knowledge related to the tasks to be performed.
Other—Occupations that do not fall into the above categories.
Supervisors of other GS employees ordinarily are classified at least one grade higher than those employees. However, this does not necessarily mean that supervisors will be paid more than each of their subordinates. Supervisory differentials are paid in some cases to keep the supervisor’s pay ahead (see Supervisory Differentials in Section 4 of this chapter).
Some white-collar employees below the senior levels are under pay banding—also called broad banding—systems. In such systems, several GS grades are combined into one, and the agency has greater leeway in setting starting salaries and increasing pay for various reasons, including for performance (see Pay Banding in Section 5 of this chapter). Pay banding systems are common in “demonstration projects” and other settings where exceptions to standard civil service rules apply (see Chapter 8, Section 7).
Federal Wage System
Blue-collar occupations comprise the trades, crafts, and manual labor (unskilled, semi-skilled, or skilled), including foreman and supervisory positions entailing trade, craft, or laboring experience and knowledge as the paramount requirement.
The pay of the federal government’s blue-collar employees is set as an hourly rate under 5 U.S.C. 5343. The law requires that hourly rates for these Federal Wage System employees—also commonly called wage grade or prevailing rate—be adjusted in accordance with pay rates in local markets. The most common wage system schedule, for most non-supervisory workers, contains 15 grades. Each of the grades includes five steps, set at 4 percent increments.
If the employee’s performance is above unacceptable, advancement to the second step occurs after six months of employment, advancement to the third after an additional 18 months, to the fourth after an additional 24 months, and to the fifth after an additional 24 months.
Occupations often cover more than one grade level, and many occupations typically are represented at each grade. Differences in rates of pay among wage areas reflect the fact that the prevailing cost of labor varies by region.
The wage system’s prevailing rate determinations are made on the basis of surveys by a “lead agency”—the agency with the most blue-collar employees in an area, most commonly the Defense Department—of rates paid by private employers in each local wage area for work similar to that performed by federal wage employees. Wage schedule adjustments have been capped for many years through the budget process at the local General Schedule pay increase, including both across the board and locality pay adjustments (before 2004 they were capped at the GS national average increase). Wage schedules are adjusted at different times of the year according to when the local lead agency conducts the annual wage survey.
U.S. Postal Service
As an independent establishment, the U.S. Postal Service operates its own pay system that has two main salary structures plus additional specialized structures. The two main structures are the PS (Postal Service) structure, which covers bargaining unit personnel, such as most clerks and carriers, mail handlers, nurses and security personnel; and the EAS (Executive and Administrative Schedule) structure, which covers executives, professionals, supervisors, postmasters, technical and administrative employees, and other workers not covered by bargaining agreements. See Chapter 12, Section 3.
Executive Schedule, Congressional, and Judicial Pay
Salary levels of certain top officials of all three branches of government are linked. The Executive Schedule, which governs the pay of Cabinet officers and other top federal executives—almost all of them political appointees—is the basic underlying structure. It includes five levels which are, in descending order:
• Level I, Cabinet-Level officials;
• Level II, deputy secretaries of departments, secretaries of military departments, and heads of major agencies;
• Level III, undersecretaries of departments and heads of middle-level agencies;
• Level IV, assistant secretaries and general counsels of departments, heads of smaller agencies, members of certain boards and commissions; and
• Level V, administrators, commissioners, directors, and members of boards, commissions, or units of agencies.
Executive Schedule rates are used to establish certain salary limits for General Schedule employees, the Senior Executive Service, employees in senior-level and senior scientific and technical jobs, administrative law judges, and certain other highly paid positions. See the pertinent topics in this section.
The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 provided for an annual salary adjustment for leaders and members of the Senate and House of Representatives, the Vice President, positions on the Executive Schedule, and federal justices and judges. The adjustment is based on the percentage change in the wages and salaries (not seasonally adjusted) for the private industry workers element of the employment cost index (ECI), minus 0.5 percent, using the December indicator. It becomes effective at the same time as, and at a rate no greater than, the across-the-board component of the annual basic pay rate adjustment (not counting any locality pay component) for federal employees under the General Schedule, up to a cap of 5 percent.
While the Ethics Reform Act sets the rate of the judicial pay adjustment, salary increases for justices and judges must be enacted separately. The congressional and Executive Schedule raises are automatic unless Congress acts to prevent them—which has happened in most recent years. In years when Executive Schedule pay is frozen but a federal raise otherwise is paid, the underlying Executive Schedule rates have been increased for purposes of determining the associated pay caps; the same has applied to the Vice President’s salary rate, which determines the cap on total compensation (see Pay Caps and see Aggregate Limit on Compensation in Section 2 of this chapter; for current rates, see Section 11 of this chapter). Note: The President’s salary is set by law, 3 U.S.C. 102, at $400,000 and cannot be changed during an incumbent’s term.
Senior Executive Service
The Senior Executive Service (SES) is a cadre of high-level supervisors, about nine-tenths of them career employees, the rest politically appointed or on temporary assignments. The SES pay system (see 5 U.S.C. 53 Subchapter VIII) features a pay range with a minimum rate of basic pay starting at 120 percent of the rate for grade 15, step 1, of the base General Schedule (not including locality pay). Agencies that demonstrate that their executive appraisal systems make “meaningful distinctions based on relative performance,” as certified by the Office of Personnel Management with concurrence by the Office of Management and Budget, may pay up to Level II of the Executive Schedule. Most agencies have that certification; for those that don’t, the cap is Level III of the Executive Schedule. SES employees are guaranteed not to suffer a reduction in pay if they transfer to an SES position in another agency where salaries are capped at the lower amount, if their salaries were above that level while at an agency eligible for the higher amount. Under Executive Order 13714 of 2015, an SES member generally must be paid more than any of General Schedule direct-report subordinates, including their locality pay but not including other forms of compensation such as recruitment or retention incentives.
SES members in an agency with a certified executive performance appraisal system also are subject to a higher aggregate compensation limit (that is, basic salary, plus performance bonus for career SES members, and other allowances and incentives) equivalent to the salary rate of the Vice President. Absent certification, the maximum is the rate for Level I of the Executive Schedule. See Aggregate Limit on Compensation in Section 2 of this chapter for details of the certification procedure and what forms of compensation are counted toward the total compensation cap.
SES members do not receive annual across-the-board or locality pay adjustments. Pay adjustments for SES members are based on the employee’s individual performance and/or contribution to the agency’s performance. See Chapter 8, Section 9.
SES members paid at a rate of basic pay equal to or greater than 86.5 percent of the rate for Level II are subject to certain additional post-employment restrictions. See Post-employment Restrictions in Chapter 10, Section 5.
Other High-Level Systems
Administrative Law Judges—ALJs hear and rule on disputes involving economic regulations, enforcement of actions brought by federal agencies against individuals or organizations, and claims for benefits. The large majority work at the Social Security Administration. While they are career federal employees, they operate under a system designed to protect their decisional independence from undue agency influence. See Special Recruitment, Hiring and Placement Programs in Chapter 8, Section 1 for policies on hiring.
The ALJ pay system consists of three levels, in descending order AL-1, -2 and -3; level 3 in turn is divided into six rates, A-F. ALJ positions are placed at levels AL-2 and AL-1 when they involve significant administrative and managerial responsibilities. The minimum rate for ALJ positions is 65 percent of Level IV of the Executive Schedule, and the maximum, including locality adjustments, is Level III.
An ALJ who is appointed and placed in level AL-3 must be paid at the minimum rate A, unless the ALJ is eligible for a higher rate, not to exceed the maximum rate F, because of prior service, superior qualifications or reinstatement eligibility.
Administrative law judges must serve at least one year in each AL pay level, or in an equivalent or higher level in positions in the federal service, before advancing to the next higher level. Administrative law judges may advance only one level at a time. An ALJ in level AL-3 is advanced automatically to the next higher rate upon completion of the required waiting period—52 weeks each up to level D, and 104 weeks to advance to E and to F.
Time previously served in the next lower rate will be creditable service towards completing the waiting period when an ALJ returns after a break in service to the same rate. However, time under the administrative appeals judge pay system is not creditable service in computing the required waiting period. Time in non-pay status is generally creditable service in computation of a waiting period as long as it does not exceed, in the aggregate, two weeks per 52 weeks of service. Absence due to uniformed service or compensable injury is fully creditable upon re-employment.
On a one-time basis and with prior OPM approval, an agency may advance an ALJ in an AL-3 position with added administrative and managerial duties and responsibilities to the next higher rate, up to the maximum rate F.
ALJs may earn premium pay, subject to the applicable premium pay cap, but are not eligible for recruitment, relocation, or retention incentives or for the student loan repayment program.
ALJs typically receive, by annual executive orders, the same across-the-board and pertinent locality pay raises as General Schedule employees.
Administrative Appeals Judges—The duties of an AAJ primarily involve reviewing decisions of administrative law judges and rendering final administrative decisions. The AAJ pay system has six rates of basic pay, AA-1-6. These rates correspond to the rates of basic pay for AL-3/A-F of the administrative law judge pay system.
Upon initial appointment, an agency must set the rate of basic pay of an AAJ at the minimum rate AA-1, unless the AAJ is appointed without a break in service from a General Schedule position, or the employee is eligible for a higher rate because of prior service or superior qualifications.
An AAJ is advanced automatically to the next higher rate upon completion of the required waiting period—52 weeks to advance each level up to AA-4, and 104 weeks to advance to levels 5 and 6. Time under the administrative law judge pay system is creditable service in computing the required waiting period when an individual moves from that system to the AAJ pay system without a break in service. Time previously served in the next lower rate will be creditable service towards completing the waiting period when an AAJ returns after a break in service to the same rate. Policies regarding time in non-pay status mirror those for ALJs, and AAJs are similarly eligible for premium pay.
The rates of basic pay of the AAJ pay system are adjusted at the same time and in the same manner as adjustments are made in the corresponding rates of basic pay for the ALJ system, including locality payments, subject to a cap of Level III of the Executive Schedule.
Department of Defense Doctors—The Physician and Dentist Pay Plan (PDPP) establishes pay-setting policies, rules, and tables for physicians and dentists at the Department of Defense. Total salary includes two components, basic pay and market pay, both of which count for purposes including retirement calculations and benefits such as life insurance and lump-sum payments for unused annual leave on separation. Basic pay grades under the PDPP are determined by the General Schedule. A market pay component is added to reflect the recruitment and retention needs for the specialty or assignment of the position.
In determining ranges of annual pay for the PDPP, DoD mirrors the pay table and tier structure established by the Veterans Affairs Department (see below). The ranges used by the PDPP are based on data gathered from national surveys of pay for physicians and dentists.
PDPP pay tiers set the minimum and maximum amounts of annual pay by specialty groups. Based on recruitment and retention considerations and labor market characteristics, a pay table is a set of tiers for clinical specialties that are grouped together. A tier is a pay range within a pay table that reflects the scope of work within a specialty. Employees are assigned to a pay table based on their clinical specialties.
Factors considered when setting market pay include level of experience, agency need, labor market forces, board certifications, accomplishments, and other qualifications or credentials. Compensation panels are designed to ensure consistency and propriety of market pay decisions.
Department of Veterans Affairs Doctors—Compensation for physicians and dentists in the VA’s Veterans Health Administration consists of: a uniform nationwide base pay range with 15 steps based on length of service with VA, increased annually by the General Schedule average increase, plus an automatic step increase for longevity every two years; market pay determined according to the recruitment and retention needs for the specialty or assignment at a particular facility, along with experience, board certifications, and other qualifications of the individual physicians and dentists; and performance pay paid on the basis of the achievement of specific goals and performance objectives.
Pay rates and ranges are set for five groupings of clinical specialties and two groupings of administrative assignments (one for chiefs of staff, the other for positions such as chief officer or network director). Within each specialty or assignment, there are between two and four tiers, each with its own rate range and within which each individual has an annual pay amount set.
Senior-Level/Senior Scientific and Technical Positions—These categories cover many positions classified above GS-15 that are not eligible for the Senior Executive Service due to the lack of supervisory duties; they sometimes are called “senior professional” positions. Qualifications for the positions are determined by individual agencies and hiring often is done without competitive examination on the basis of meeting qualification standards.
The senior scientific and technical (ST) system covers nonexecutive positions that involve performance of high-level research and development in the physical, biological, medical, or engineering sciences, or a closely related field. ST positions may include some supervisory and related managerial duties, provided that these duties occupy less than 25 percent of the incumbent’s time. The senior level (SL) system is for nonexecutive positions that do not involve the fundamental research and development responsibilities that are characteristic of the ST system, such as a high-level special assistant or a senior attorney in a highly specialized field who is not a manager, supervisor, or policy advisor. All ST positions are in the competitive service. So are most SL positions, with some in the excepted service.
Pay policies for senior professional employees, at 5 CFR 534 subpart E, generally mirror those applying to senior executives as described in Senior Executive Service, above, including a general requirement that they be paid more than any General Schedule direct-report subordinates. Salaries are set according to national minimum and maximum rates determined annually. The minimum rate for these positions is 120 percent of the rate for grade 15, step 1 of the base General Schedule (not including locality pay) and the maximum is Level II of the Executive Schedule if the agency’s performance evaluation system is certified by OPM as making “meaningful distinctions based on relative performance,” and Level III if there is no such certification. Employees are guaranteed not to suffer a reduction in pay if they transfer to a senior professional position in another agency where salaries are capped at the lower amount, if their salaries were above that level while at an agency eligible for the higher amount. The aggregate compensation limit (basic salary plus performance bonus and other allowances and incentives) is equivalent to the underlying salary rate of the Vice President if the agency’s appraisal system is certified, and Level I of the Executive Schedule if it is not. See Aggregate Limit on Compensation in Section 2 of this chapter for details of the certification procedure and what forms of compensation are counted toward the total compensation cap.
SL and ST employees paid at a rate of basic pay equal to or greater than 86.5 percent of the rate for Executive Schedule Level II are subject to certain additional post-employment restrictions. See Post-Employment Restrictions in Chapter 10, Section 5.
Special Salary Rates
The Office of Personnel Management may establish higher rates of basic pay—special salary rates, more commonly simply called special rates—for a group or category of General Schedule positions in one or more geographic areas to address existing or likely significant difficulties in recruiting or retaining well-qualified employees. OPM may establish special rates for nearly any category of employee—that is, by series, specialty, grade-level, and/or geographic area. See 5 U.S.C. 5305 and 5 CFR 530.304.
Special rates may be authorized whenever OPM finds that the government’s recruitment or retention efforts are or are likely to be adversely affected by a variety of factors, including significantly higher rates of pay offered by nonfederal employers, the remoteness of the job’s area or location, undesirable working conditions or duties (including exposure to toxic substances or other occupational hazards), or other circumstance that OPM considers appropriate. Once established, each special rate is reviewed annually and adjustments made as warranted according to existing labor market conditions and agency staffing needs. Agencies may request OPM to establish special rates for their employees, in coordination with other agencies having employees in the same occupational group and geographic area.
An employee’s entitlement to a special rate is eliminated if the employee is entitled to a higher rate of basic pay, such as a locality rate under 5 U.S.C. 5304 (see 5 U.S.C. 5305(h) and 5 CFR 530.303(d)). This action does not reduce the salaries of the affected employees, since they already are receiving locality rates higher than the special rate.
There are about 270 special rate authorities established by OPM that cover some 39,000 employees. Certain categories of employees receive special rate pay under other authorities, such as law enforcement officers (see below) and certain medical occupations in the Department of Veterans Affairs under 38 U.S.C. 7455.
The minimum rate of a special rate range may exceed the maximum rate of the corresponding grade by as much as 30 percent, up to the rate for Executive Level IV.
Special rates generally are basic pay for the same purposes as locality rates. Like a locality rate, a special rate consists of a basic rate and a supplement. An agency may choose to exclude its employees from coverage under a proposed or existing special rate schedule after notifying OPM. Each year, OPM and agencies employing special rate employees conduct a review to determine the amount by which special rates will be adjusted at the time of a general increase in General Schedule rates. Agencies do not have to submit a certification form for each special rate schedule. Instead, they must submit information to OPM only if they are requesting a special rate adjustment greater than or less than the GS annual pay adjustment. OPM reviews such agency submissions and makes a determination regarding the appropriate adjustment in the affected special rate schedules. All other special rate schedules are adjusted by the same percentage as the across the board GS pay adjustment.
The special rate authority allows a lead agency, with the approval of OPM, to establish rates above the regular Federal Wage System rates for an occupation or group of occupations experiencing or potentially experiencing recruitment or retention difficulties. Special rates are established by occupation, grade, agency, and/or geographic location. These rates will be paid by all agencies having positions for which the rates are authorized. The special rate payable may not, at any time, be less than the unrestricted rate otherwise payable for such positions under the applicable regular pay schedule.
Special rate employees are eligible for within-grade raises, raises related to a promotion, and similar types of increases.
A listing of special rate tables for the General Schedule is at http://apps.opm.gov/specialrates. A listing for Federal Wage System (wage grade) employees is at www.dcpas.osd.mil/BWN/WageIndex.
‘Structural’ Firefighters—“Structural” firefighters are classified in the GS-081 series and provide around-the-clock protection at certain federal facilities, mainly Defense Department installations. In addition, they generally provide paramedic support and hazardous material controls. They typically work 24-hour shifts that include sleep, meals and other personal standby time. Most have a 72-hour workweek consisting of three 24-hour shifts. Because sleep and personal time is included in their duty shift, firefighters whose regularly established workweeks average at least 53 hours receive a lower hourly rate of basic pay than other employees. The applicable GS annual rate is divided by a 2,756-hour factor (53 hours per week times 52 weeks) to derive their hourly rate.
GS-081 firefighters have no overtime pay entitlement until they have worked 53 hours in a week or 106 hours in a biweekly pay period. For those who are exempt from (that is, not covered by) the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), overtime pay is capped at one and one-half times the rate for GS-10, step 1, or the employee’s regular rate of basic pay, whichever is higher. The overtime rate for GS-081 firefighters eligible for FLSA overtime is not similarly capped.
GS-081 firefighters are barred from receiving payment of any other premium pay, including night pay, Sunday pay, holiday pay, and hazardous duty pay. Special computations are provided for firefighters whose regular tour of duty includes a basic 40-hour week.
Wildland Firefighters—Wildland firefighters are employed, primarily by the Forest Service and Department of the Interior, to control, extinguish, prevent and manage wildland fires. While some wildland firefighters are employed year-round, most are employed on a seasonal basis, and classified as GS-462 forestry technicians or GS-455 range technicians. While actively fighting fires, they must serve at the site of the fire and work shifts that extend well beyond the eight-hour work day and must stay at a base camp during off-duty hours for sleep and meals and other personal activities.
Wildland firefighters, whether FLSA-exempt or not, receive overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. They are not subject to any cap on the hourly rate of overtime pay while engaged in emergency wildland fire suppression activities. They are eligible for hazard pay at the rate of 25 percent for all time in a pay status on any day when they are exposed to a hazard. Wildland firefighters are covered by federal injury compensation policies (see Chapter 5, Section 5). See FEHB Eligibility and Enrollment Rules in Chapter 2, Section 1 for policies regarding health insurance coverage.
Rules for firefighter pay are in 5 CFR 410, 550, 551 and 630.
Law Enforcement Officers
Federal law enforcement officers (LEOs) are primarily involved in criminal and noncriminal investigation, policing, corrections, court operations, security and protection. Most LEO employees with arrest authority are covered by standard basic pay systems, primarily the General Schedule.
LEOs within the GS system are entitled to higher rates of basic pay at grades GS-3 through GS-10. These LEO special rates, established by Section 529 of Public Law 101-509, are used as basic rates in computing locality payments. The GS system also allows law enforcement officers to receive various forms of premium pay including hazardous duty pay, administratively uncontrollable overtime, night pay, Sunday pay, and holiday pay (see Section 7 of this chapter).
A small percentage of LEOs receive other OPM-established special rate pay; most of these are medical personnel working at correctional institutions. Further, while Department of Veterans Affairs police officers are covered by the GS system, they may receive higher special rates of basic pay established by VA under its Title 38 special rate authority, subject to OPM’s concurrence.
Departments and agencies operating their own LEO salary systems include the U.S. Postal Service, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the U.S. Mint, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, the State Department (Bureau of Diplomatic Security) and the Department of Homeland Security. The Judicial and Legislative Branches also operate separate systems. The provisions of these systems may be established directly in law, by administrative action, or in some cases by collective bargaining. There are significant variations in pay and benefits entitlements among them.
Transportation Security Administration
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), part of the Department of Homeland Security, operates a pay system separate from the General Schedule under its authorizing law, P.L. 107-71. TSA uses a pay banding system with minimum and maximum rates that may be higher or lower than the closest GS grade equivalent. The accompanying table shows rough equivalencies.
Assignment to a band is determined by qualifications. Unless otherwise determined by the hiring official, employees newly hired to the TSA are paid at the minimum rate of the pay band for the position. Former or current federal employees are not automatically entitled to receive their highest previous rate of pay upon hiring. Management may match or exceed that rate on a determination that applicants have specialized experience that demonstrates they possess superior skills and abilities to perform the duties of the position. To be considered for setting pay at a rate above the minimum of the pay band, the specialized experience must be in, or related to, the work of the position to be filled.
Increases to basic pay can be made on promotion or reassignment, in special circumstances such as increased job complexity, and for performance as described in Other Major Alternative Personnel Authorities in Chapter 8, Section 7.
Other Pay Systems
In addition to the pay schedules or systems described above, the federal government operates numerous other pay systems, many of them unique to agencies or sub-agencies, and many of them occupation-specific. Separate pay systems, for example, are used to set salary levels for Foreign Service employees, air traffic controllers, and employees of “non-appropriated fund instrumentalities,” which are self-funding facilities such as post exchanges or commissaries. These systems go by a variety of names, use differing nomenclature for classification levels, and vary in how they set and increase salaries. If you are under one of them, check with your personnel office regarding the terms of the system. Fact sheets at www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/pay-administration describe special considerations for those systems such as use of incentive payments and policies for employees moving between them and the General Schedule.
Also, agencies have various special pay-setting authorities available to them, some at their own discretion and some upon approval from the Office of Management and Budget and/or OPM (see Section 5 of this chapter), and some agencies, or parts of them, use alternative pay structures that involve pay banding and other non-standard practices (see Chapter 8, Section 7).