General Schedule (US civil service pay scale)

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The General Schedule (GS) is the predominant pay scale within the United States civil service. The GS includes the majority of white collar personnel (professional, technical, administrative, and clerical) positions. As of September 2004, 71 percent of federal civilian employees were paid under the GS, with the remaining 29 percent were paid under other systems such as the Federal Wage System (WG, for federal blue-collar civilian employees), the Senior Executive Service and the Executive Schedule for high-ranking federal employees, and other unique pay schedules used by some agencies such as the United States Securities and Exchange Commission and the Foreign Service. Starting in 2009, some federal employees were also paid under Pay Bands.



The GS was enacted into law by the Classification Act of 1949, which replaced a similar act of the same name enacted in 1923. The GS is now codified as part of Chapter 53 of Title 5 of the United States Code sections 5331 to 5338 (5 U.S.C. §§ 53315338). The intent of the GS is to keep federal salaries equitable among various occupations and between men and women ("equal pay for equal work").

Prior to January 1994, GS personnel were generally paid the same amount (for a given grade and step) regardless of where they worked. This system ignored the growing reality of regional differences in salaries and wages across the United States, and this led to a perception that in many locations federal civil service salaries were increasingly uncompetitive with those in the private sector, thus affecting recruiting and retention efforts by federal agencies. In January 1994, the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA) introduced a "locality pay adjustment" component to the GS salary structure. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have complained about the methodology used to compute locality adjustments and the projected cost of closing the pay gap (as determined by FEPCA) between federal salaries and those in the private sector. In December 2007, the President's Pay Agent reported that an average locality pay adjustment of 36.89 per cent would be required to reach the target set by FEPCA (to close the computed pay gap between federal and non-federal pay to a disparity of five per cent). By comparison, in calendar year 2007, the average locality pay adjustment actually authorized was 16.88 per cent. As a result, FEPCA has never been fully implemented.


The Office of Personnel Management administers the GS pay schedule on behalf of other federal agencies.

Changes to the GS must normally be authorized by either the president (via Executive Order) or by Congress (via legislation). Normally, the President directs annual across-the-board pay adjustments at the beginning of a calendar year after Congress has passed the annual appropriations legislation for the federal government.

Under FEPCA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts annual surveys of wages and salaries paid to non-federal workers in designated locality pay areas. Surveys are used to determine the disparity, if any, between federal and non-federal pay in a given locality pay area. The Federal Salary Council (created by FEPCA) prepares recommendations concerning the composition of the designated locality pay areas and the annual comparability adjustment for each area, as well as an adjustment for all other workers outside these areas, referred to as "Rest of U.S.". The council's recommendations are transmitted to the President's Pay Agent (also created by FEPCA), which then establishes, modifies, or disestablishes individual locality pay areas and makes the final recommendation on pay adjustments to the president, who may either accept the agent's recommendations or (in effect) reject them through the submission of an alternative pay plan.

FEPCA also provides for an automatic annual across-the-board adjustment of GS pay rates. A common misconception is that the annual federal pay adjustments are determined according to cost of living fluctuations and other regional considerations. In fact, the across-the-board adjustments to the GS (but not locality pay) are determined according to the rise in the cost of employment as measured by the Department of Labor's Employment Cost Index, which does not necessarily correlate to the better-known Consumer Price Index, which tracks consumer prices.

Grade and Step Structure

The GS is separated into 15 grades (GS-1, GS-2, etc. up to GS-15); each grade is separated into 10 steps. At one time, there were also three GS "supergrades" (GS-16, GS-17 and GS-18); these were eliminated under the provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and replaced by the Senior Executive Service and the more recent Senior Level (non-supervisory) pay scale.

Most positions in the competitive service are paid according to the GS. In addition, many positions in the excepted service use the GS as a basis for setting pay rates. Some positions in the excepted service use the grade designator "GG"—for example, "GG-12" or "GG-13". The GG pay rates are generally identical to published GS pay rates.

The GS-1 through GS-7 range generally marks entry-level positions, while mid-level positions are in the GS-8 to GS-12 range and top-level positions (commonly front-line or mid-level supervisors, high-level technical specialists, or physicians) are in the GS-13 to GS-15 range. A new GS employee is normally employed in the first step of their assigned GS grade, although the employer has discretion to, as a recruiting incentive, authorize initial appointment at a higher step (other agencies may place the employee at a higher grade).

Salary Calculation

Salaries under the GS have two components: a base salary and a "locality pay adjustment".

Base salary

The base salary is based on a table compiled by Office of Personnel Management (the 2010 table is shown below),[1] and is used as the baseline for the locality pay adjustment. The increases between steps for Grades GS-1 and GS-2 varies between the steps; for Grades GS-3 through GS-15 the increases between the steps are the same within the grade, but increase as the grade increases. The table is revised effective January of each year to reflect the basic cost of living adjustment (known as the General Schedule Increase).

GS GradeStep 1Step 2Step 3Step 4Step 5Step 6Step 7Step 8Step 9Step 10

Locality Adjustment

The second component of the GS salary, the locality pay adjustment, was introduced in 1994 as part of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA). Prior to FEPCA, all GS employees received the same salary regardless of location, which failed to reflect both the disparity between public sector and private sector pay as well as differences in cost of living in major metropolitan areas.

Under FEPCA, specified metropolitan areas are designated to receive pay adjustments in excess of the general adjustment provided to the "Rest of U.S.". Salary adjustments in Alaska, Hawaii, other U.S. Territories, and for overseas employees are separate from this adjustment. As of 2010, 31 metropolitan areas have been designated to receive these excess adjustment. The designated areas (shown by major city) and their 2010 pay adjustments (plus the "Rest of U.S." adjustment) are as follows:

Chicago25.10%Hartford25.82%New York City28.72%San Diego24.19%
Cincinnati18.55%Houston28.71%Philadelphia21.79%San Francisco35.15%
Columbus17.16%Indianapolis14.68%Pittsburgh16.37%Washington D.C.24.22%
Dallas20.67%Los Angeles27.16%Portland20.35%Rest of U.S.14.16%

As an example of the overall calculation, a GS employee, Grade GS-12, Step 10 in Dallas would receive a base salary of $78,355 plus a locality pay adjustment of 20.67 percent (an additional $16,196) for a total salary of $94,551. By comparison, a similar employee in San Antonio (which is not one of the 31 designated areas for an increased adjustment) would receive only the standard "Rest of U.S." 14.16 percent increase ($11,095) over the same base salary, for a total salary of $89,450.

However, FEPCA places a cap on the total salary of highly-paid employees (mainly those at the higher GS-15 Grade steps) – the total base pay plus locality adjustment cannot exceed the salary for Level IV of the Executive Schedule.

The locality pay adjustment is counted as part of the "high-3" salary in calculating Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) annuities, as well as the baseline for individuals having a percentage of salary deducted for deposit into the Thrift Savings Plan.

OCONUS GS Personnel

Personnel based outside the contiguous United States (e.g., Alaska, Hawaii, U.S. territories, foreign overseas areas) receive a lower locality adjustment (4.76 percent for 2010). They may also receive certain non-taxable allowances such as cost-of-living allowances, post allowances and housing allowances in accordance with other laws, such as the Foreign Service Act. Federal civilian workers based in CONUS do not normally receive housing allowances or government-furnished housing. Also, some civilian personnel stationed overseas do not receive housing allowances; this may include military dependents working in federal civilian positions overseas, military members that left the service while overseas and were hired into an overseas position, and U.S. citizens hired into overseas positions while traveling abroad.

In contrast, the tax-free allowances paid during overseas assignments (especially the housing allowances) are generally considered to be an incentive to serve overseas, as they can be quite generous. While this situation may be advantageous to some personnel during their assignment overseas, these tax-free allowances are not considered to be part of one's salary, therefore they are not counted when computing a civil service annuity at retirement. CONUS locality adjustments, however, are counted when computing annuities.

Promotions and Advancement

Between Steps within the same Grade

Permanent employees below step 10 in their grade normally earn step increases after serving a prescribed period of service in at least a satisfactory manner. The normal progression is 52 weeks (one year) between steps 1-2, 2-3, and 3-4, then 104 weeks (two years) between steps 4-5, 5-6, and 6-7, and finally 156 weeks (three years) between steps 7-8, 8-9, and 9-10.[2] However, an employee can be rewarded for outstanding work performance via a "quality step increase", which advances the employee one step within grade regardless of time at the previous step.[3]

Between GS Grades

Depending on the agency and the work description, a GS position may provide for advancement within a "career ladder," meaning that an employee performing satisfactorily will advance between GS grades, normally on an annual basis, until he(she) has reached the top GS grade for that job (which represents full performance). Advancement beyond the top grade (to either a specialized technical position or to a managerial position) would be subject to competitive selection.

Not all positions, however, provide for such a "career ladder," thus requiring employees who seek advancement to consider other career paths, either within their agency or outside it.

An example is the "career ladder" for auditors within the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA). The "entry level" grade within DCAA is the GS-7 level (though the GS-9 level can also be used) and the "career ladder" is GS-7 to GS-9 to GS-11 and finally to GS-12, with the employee expected to advance between grades after one year and to reach the GS-12 level after three years. Beyond the GS-12 level, advancements to the higher levels (GS-13, GS-14, and GS-15, most of which are managerial positions) are based on competitive selections.

Military rank equivalency

Although GS civilians do not have military rank by virtue of their GS position, regulations include civilian and military grade equivalencies for pay and protocol comparison purposes. Military rank or civilian grade often have no bearing on supervisory precedence—generally, precedence and authority are guided by situational expertise. For example, a GS-9 is considered comparable to a lieutenant (O-2), while a GS-15 (top of the General Schedule) is the equivalent grade of an army colonel or navy captain (O-6). Senior Executive Service (SES) and Senior Level grades correspond for protocol purposes to flag and general officers (admirals and generals).

Grade equivalencies were created by the U.S. Department of Defense for the purpose of treating civilians serving alongside the Armed Forces who have been captured as prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention.[4] With the exception of SES categories, grade equivalencies can be found in DoDI 1000.1 (U.S. DoD, 1974).[5]

Geneva Convention CategoryGSMILITARY
V: General OfficerSenior Executive ServiceO-7 through O-10
IV: Field Grade OfficerGS-15
O-5 and W-5
O-4 and W-4
III: Company Grade OfficerGS-10/GS-11
O-3 and W-3
O-2 and W-2
O-1 and W-1
II: Non-commissioned Officer/Staff Non-commissioned OfficerGS-6
E-7 through E-9
E-5 through E-6
I: EnlistedGS-4
GS-1 through GS-3
E-1 through E-3

Grade equivalencies have also been issued by the U.S. Department of State for other purposes, such as assignment of permanent and transient housing to eligible civilian employees.[6]

HousingFSGSMilitaryWage System
Group 1
GS 16-28
through O-7
Group 2
WS-14-19, WL-15,
and Productive
Support Equivalents
Group 3


WS 8-13,
WL 6-14,
WG 12-15, and
Productive Support

Pay for performance

In recent years, there have been several attempts to eliminate the GS and replace it with various pay systems emphasizing "pay for performance" (i.e., a system in which pay increases are awarded based more on merit and work performance and less on seniority and length of service). The pay structure which enables this is typically known as pay banding. The best known efforts in this area are the pay systems created for the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense (the National Security Personnel System)[7] in 2002 and 2003, respectively. These efforts were challenged by federal labor unions and other employee groups.[citation needed] Many supervisory and non-bargaining-unit employees, however, were converted from their GS positions into equitable NSPS positions. As part of his fiscal 2007 and 2008 budget proposals, President George W. Bush proposed the eventual elimination of the GS to be replaced by a pay-for-performance concept throughout the Executive Branch of the government. The Office of Management and Budget prepared draft legislation, known as the "Working for America Act", but as of January 2008[dated info] Congress has not implemented the proposal. President Barack Obama signed the legislation repealing the NSPS system on October 29, 2009. Under the terms of the 2010 Defense Authorization Act, Public Law 111-84, all employees under NSPS must be converted back to their previous pay system not later than January 1, 2012. The law also mandates that no employees lose pay as a result of this conversion.[8] In order to ensure this, a set of conversion rules has been developed. In most cases, if an employee's current NSPS salary falls between two step levels of the GS grade to which their position is classified, their salary will be increased to the higher step. Employees whose salary was increased beyond the GS step 10 amount while under NSPS will be placed on retained pay, meaning they will receive 50% of the annual cost of living increase until the GS table catches up to the level of salary they are earning.[9]

List of other pay scale terms

New pay-banding systems that have replaced GS:


External links