Annual Pay Adjustments
The Federal Wage System: Background
The Federal Wage System (FWS)—also known as the wage grade or prevailing rate system—is designed to make the pay of federal blue-collar workers comparable to prevailing private sector local rates for similar positions. It is overseen by the Federal Prevailing Rate Advisory Committee, made up of agency and labor union members and an independent chairman, which studies matters pertaining to prevailing rate determinations and advises OPM on pay policies for FWS employees.
The main FWS pay plan covers most trade, craft, and laboring employees in the Executive Branch. It does not cover Postal Service employees. Special pay plans cover certain employees in special circumstances. OPM authorizes special pay plans when unusual labor market conditions seriously handicap agencies in recruiting and retaining qualified employees.
Wage Grade Locality Pay Procedures
The FWS is a partnership among OPM, other federal agencies, and labor organizations. OPM specifies procedures for agencies to design and conduct wage surveys, to construct wage schedules, to grade levels of work, and to administer basic and premium pay for employees.
To issue common job-grading standards for major occupations, OPM occupational specialists follow specific steps to develop new standards and to update existing standards. They make full occupational studies, which include onsite visits to interview employees, supervisors, and union representatives. Specialists write standards and ask agencies and unions for comments. Federal agencies are required to apply these standards.
OPM defines the geographic boundaries of individual local wage areas—there are about 130 of them, with the number varying somewhat from time to time—and reviews survey job descriptions to ensure that they are accurate and current. In addition, OPM works with agencies and unions to schedule annual local wage surveys in each wage area.
Each FWS wage area consists of a survey area and an area of application. A survey area includes the counties, townships, and cities where the lead agency in the wage area collects and analyzes private sector wage data to produce a wage schedule for the wage area. An area of application includes the survey area and nearby counties, townships, and cities where the wage schedule also applies.
Wage grade raises are paid at differing times of a fiscal year, varying by locality. Wage adjustments become effective in accordance with what is commonly referred to as the 45-day law. This law states that the government has 45 working days to put FWS pay adjustments into effect after each wage survey starts. Each wage schedule has a uniform effective date for all employees in a wage area, regardless of the agency. Normally, the effective date is based on the pay period cycle for the largest employer in the wage area, with the effective date set on the first day of the first pay period following the 45-day wage survey period.
OPM does not conduct local wage surveys. For each wage area, OPM identifies a “lead” agency—in almost all cases the Department of Defense—that employs the majority of wage grade employees in the area. That agency is responsible for conducting wage surveys, analyzing data, and issuing wage schedules under the policies and procedures prescribed by OPM. Out-of-area data are used where the government has large numbers of employees in specialized occupations for which there are insufficient comparable private sector jobs locally. All agencies in a wage area pay their hourly wage employees according to the wage schedules developed by the lead agency.
Labor organizations also play a role in the wage determination process by providing representatives at all levels of the wage determination process. The employee unions having the greatest number of wage employees under exclusive recognition designate two of the five members of a lead agency’s national level wage committee. Locally, the union with the most employees under exclusive recognition in a wage area designates one of the three members of each local wage survey committee. In addition, labor organizations nominate half of the federal employees who collect wage data from private enterprise employers. A team of one labor data collector and one management data collector visits each surveyed employer.
Under the FWS, pay is based on what private industry is paying for comparable levels of work in a local wage area. Employees are paid the full prevailing rate at step 2 of each grade level. Step 5, the highest step in the FWS, is 12 percent above the prevailing rate of pay. However, legislation may limit or delay annual wage adjustments for FWS employees. This has been the practice for many years, in which wage grade raises have been capped at the national average (before 2004) or local (since 2004) General Schedule amount for the fiscal year. Wage grade pay schedules are at www.cpms.osd.mil/subpage/wage.
GS Annual Increases: Background
The annual pay adjustment for most General Schedule employees consists of two parts: a national, across-the-board increase, and a locality-based pay adjustment, both normally effective at the start of the first full pay period each January.
Under Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (Section 529 of P.L. 101-509) (FEPCA), the amount of the across-the-board increase is supposed to be based on a change in the Employment Cost Index, less 0.5 percent. (The ECI is a statistical measure maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that measures changes in private sector labor costs. Because of the lag time involved in the federal budget process, the period used is the 12 months ending with the September of the year prior to the year preceding the raise.)
Locality pay for General Schedule employees was first authorized for federal workers by FEPCA. The locality pay increases (along with the across-the-board pay hikes) were designed to address a gap between federal and nonfederal salaries that White House and congressional leaders felt was imposing a hardship on employees and leaving the government unable to compete well in the labor market. The law’s goal was to bring federal pay to within virtual comparability with the private sector—within 5 percent—over nine years by using the ECI-based raises to keep federal employees generally apace with private sector wage growth while the locality component closed the officially reported pay gap.
However, due to funding restrictions and disagreements regarding the data used to compare federal versus private sector pay, locality pay adjustments have not reached the levels indicated by the pay law’s formula. In practice, the annual federal raise has been negotiated between Congress and the White House, sometimes using the pertinent ECI figure as a starting point, with most of the total raise being designated as across-the-board pay and the remainder as locality pay. The result has been that although there is variation in pay by locality, the officially reported “pay gap” has not been narrowed nearly to the extent envisioned by the law.
The system sets specific locality raises for metropolitan areas that meet certain standards regarding federal employment, plus a catchall “rest of the U.S.” (RUS) locality for places in the contiguous 48 states outside of one of those areas and for U.S. territories and possessions, and separate localities for Alaska and Hawaii. The number and boundaries of localities change over time.
Note: GS employees in non-foreign areas outside the contiguous 48 states traditionally received special allowances in lieu of locality pay. However, locality pay was phased in for those employees to replace those allowances over 2010-2012 (see Non-Foreign Area Allowances and Differentials in Section 4 of this chapter).
Employees in foreign areas do not receive locality pay but may be eligible for various types of allowances. See Overseas Employment in Chapter 8, Section 1.
See Chapter 8, Section 7 for information about alternative pay systems.
GS Locality Pay Procedures
The locality pay determination procedure starts with pay comparison studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Findings are presented each autumn to the Federal Salary Council, a group made up of agency and labor union representatives and compensation experts. The council submits recommendations based on that data to the President’s Pay Agent, which consists of the Secretary of Labor and the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management. The council also makes recommendations to the Pay Agent on issues including: setting locality boundary lines, using criteria including local labor markets, commuting patterns and the practices of other employers; creation of new localities or the dropping of existing ones; and the treatment of federal facilities that cross boundaries.
The Pay Agent decides the pay areas and makes recommendations to the President, who by executive order allocates the across the board versus locality portions payable within the overall raise set by appropriations law, with locality payouts apportioned according to the pay gap data. If no figure is set by legislation, the President has authority to set raise amounts by default.
Annual reports of the Salary Council and the Pay Agent, including explanations of the methods used in comparing federal and non-federal pay, are at www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/pay-systems/general-schedule.
To determine an employee’s locality rate, agencies increase the employee’s “scheduled annual rate of pay” by the locality pay percentage authorized by the President for the locality pay area in which the employee’s official worksite is located. The “scheduled annual rate of pay” consists of: the General Schedule rate of basic pay for the employee’s grade and step (or relative position in the rate range), excluding additional pay of any kind such as locality payments or special rate supplements; a special base rate for law enforcement officers (LEOs) under section 403 of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA); or for an employee in a category of positions described in 5 U.S.C. 5304(h)(1)(A)-(D) for which the President (or designee) has authorized locality payments under 5 U.S.C. 5304(h)(2); the annual rate of pay fixed by law or administrative action, exclusive of any locality-based adjustments (including adjustments equivalent to local special rate supplements under 5 CFR 530 subpart C) or other additional pay of any kind.
Locality pay is considered in applying various pay-setting rules (for example, maximum payable rate, promotion, transfer, or pay retention). A locality rate may not be paid on top of a retained rate, and 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.
Locality pay is considered basic pay for purposes of: retirement deductions and benefits; life insurance premiums and benefits; premium pay and premium pay limitations; severance pay; advances in pay; lump-sum payments for accrued and accumulated annual leave; post differentials under 5 U.S.C. 5925(a) and danger pay allowances under 5 U.S.C. 5928 under certain circumstances; recruitment, relocation, and retention incentive payments, supervisory differentials, and extended assignment incentives; performance-based cash awards when such awards are computed as a percentage of an employee’s rate of basic pay; GS pay administration provisions (for example, GS promotion provisions) to the extent provided in 5 CFR 531 subpart B; pay administration provisions for prevailing rate employees which consider rates of basic pay under the GS pay system in setting pay under certain circumstances; grade and pay retention to the extent provided in 5 CFR 536; and for other provisions as specified in other statutes or OPM regulations, and payments or benefits equivalent to those listed above under other legal authorities.
Eligibility for locality pay is based on where an employee works, not on where he or she lives. Locality pay entitlement does not transfer with an employee who moves from one pay zone to another. Relocating employees receive the rate of pay applying in their new duty stations. Employees on details to a different pay area continue receiving their current salaries while on such assignments. The key is the employee’s official duty station of record; the employee receives the salary paid there.
Employees who receive special pay rates that exceed what they would get under the locality pay formula continue to receive the full amount of their special adjustments. They do not get extra pay due to locality increases until the locality pay in their areas exceeds any special rates they already are receiving, at which time the special rate becomes moot.
The pay law allows, but does not require, the President to extend locality pay to certain categories of employees not in the General Schedule. These include administrative law judges, contract appeals board members, and Executive Branch positions where the rate of basic pay is capped at the pay rate authorized for Level IV of the Executive Schedule. In practice, Presidents have granted eligible employees the same locality increases as GS employees since the system’s creation.
The President may not extend the locality payments to positions under the Executive Schedule, senior executives, employees in senior level or senior scientific and technical positions, employees paid under the Federal Wage System, employees working in foreign countries, or to certain workers designated as “critical.”
GS Locality Pay Boundaries
The boundaries for the General Schedule locality pay system generally follow standard government measures of metropolitan areas. In some cases, jurisdictions that lie just outside such areas are included based on the numbers of employees working there and the rate of commuting between the core and adjacent areas.
Metropolitan areas are designated because of their numbers of federal employees, not because of the overall population. Thus, some larger cities with small federal populations fall in the RUS locality, while some smaller cities that have a large federal presence have rates specific to them. Following are the current boundaries for the locality pay areas. The names of the metropolitan locality areas are those of the statistical areas that are the core of each.
Alaska: The state of Alaska
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville: In Georgia, Counties of Barrow, Bartow, Butts, Carroll, Chambers, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, Dawson, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Haralson, Heard, Henry, Jasper, Lamar, Meriwether, Newton, Paulding, Pickens, Pike, Polk, Rockdale, Spalding, Troup, Upson, and Walton
In Alabama, Chambers County
Boston-Worcester-Manchester: In Massachusetts, Counties of Barnstable, Bristol, Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester
In New Hampshire, Counties of Belknap, Hillsborough, Merrimack, Rockingham, and Strafford
In Rhode Island, Counties of Bristol, Kent, Newport, Providence, and Washington
In Maine, part of York County
Buffalo-Niagara-Cattaraugus: Counties of Cattaraugus, Erie, and Niagara
Chicago-Naperville-Michigan City: In Illinois, Counties of Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will
In Indiana, Counties of Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Newton, and Porter
In Wisconsin, Kenosha County
Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington: In Ohio, Counties of Brown, Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Hamilton, and Warren
In Kentucky, Counties of Boone, Bracken, Campbell, Gallatin, Grant, Kenton, and Pendleton
In Indiana, Dearborn, Franklin, and Ohio Counties
Cleveland-Akron-Elyria: Counties of Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage, and Summit
Columbus-Marion-Chillicothe: Counties of Delaware, Fairfield, Fayette, Franklin, Knox, Licking, Madison Marion, Morrow, Pickaway, Ross, and Union
Dallas-Fort Worth: Counties of Collin, Cooke, Dallas, Delta, Denton, Ellis, Fannin, Grayson, Henderson, Hood, Hunt, Johnson, Kaufman, Palo Pinto, Parker, Rockwall, Somervell, Tarrant, and Wise
Dayton-Springfield-Greenville: Counties of Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomery, and Preble
Denver-Aurora-Boulder: Counties of Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield Clear Creek, Denver, Douglas, Elbert, Gilpin, Jefferson, Larimer, Park, and Weld
Detroit-Warren-Flint: Counties of Genesee, Lapeer, Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne
Hartford-West Hartford-Willimantic: In Connecticut, Counties of Hartford, Middlesex, New London, Tolland, and Windham
In Massachusetts, Counties of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire
Hawaii: The state of Hawaii
Houston-Baytown-Huntsville: Counties of Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Walker, and Waller
Huntsville-Decatur: Counties of Lawrence, Limestone, Madison, and Morgan
Indianapolis-Anderson-Columbus: Counties of Bartholomew, Boone, Brown, Grant, Hamilton, Hancock, Hendricks, Henry, Jennings, Johnson, Madison, Marion, Montgomery, Morgan, Putnam, and Shelby
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside: Counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. Also includes all of Edwards Air Force Base.
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Pompano Beach: Counties of Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach
Milwaukee-Racine-Waukesha: Counties of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Washington, and Waukesha
Minneapolis-St. Paul-St. Cloud: In Minnesota, Counties of Anoka, Benton, Carver, Chisago, Dakota, Goodhue, Hennepin, Isanti, McLeod, Ramsey, Rice, Scott, Sherburne, Stearns, Washington, and Wright
In Wisconsin, Pierce and St. Croix Counties
New York-Newark-Bridgeport: In New York, Counties of Bronx, Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, New York, Orange, Putnam, Queens, Richmond, Rockland, Suffolk, Ulster, and Westchester
In New Jersey, Counties of Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, Union, and Warren. Also includes all of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
In Connecticut, Fairfield, Litchfield, and New Haven Counties
In Pennsylvania, Monroe and Pike Counties
Philadelphia-Camden-Vineland: In Pennsylvania, Counties of Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia
In New Jersey, Counties of Atlantic, Burlington (except for portions there of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, all which is in the New York-Newark-Bridgeport locality), Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem
In Delaware, Kent and New Castle Counties
In Maryland, Cecil County
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale: Maricopa and Pinal Counties
Pittsburgh-New Castle: Counties of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Lawrence, Washington, and Westmoreland
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro: In Oregon, Counties of Clackamas, Columbia, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Washington, and Yamhill
In Washington, Clark and Skamania Counties
Raleigh-Durham-Cary: Counties of Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Harnett, Johnston, Orange, Person, and Wake, and the Federal Correctional Complex at Butner, N.C.
Richmond: Counties of Amelia, Caroline, Charles City, Chesterfield, Cumberland, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, King and Queen, King William, Louisa, New Kent, Powhatan, Prince George, and Sussex, cities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Petersburg, and Richmond
Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Yuba City: In California, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba Counties
In Nevada, Counties of Douglas and Carson City
San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos: San Diego County
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland: Counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma
Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia: Counties of Island, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston, and Whatcom
Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia: District of Columbia
In Maryland, the Counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, St. Mary’s, and Washington and Baltimore city
In Virginia, the Counties of Arlington, Clarke, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, Frederick, King George, Loudon, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford, Warren and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Manassas Park, and the city of Winchester
In Pennsylvania, Adams and York Counties
In West Virginia, the Counties of Berkeley, Hampshire, Jefferson, and Morgan
Rest of U.S. (RUS): Portions of states not in another locality area, and U.S. territories and possessions.