Federal pay and benefits have come under increasing scrutiny. But just what are the basics of working for Uncle Sam? We spend the week examining what is provided to federal workers.

The general schedule commonly is called the government pay scale, but it is just one of numerous pay systems government operates for its employees.

The GS system covers most white collar employees up through mid-management levels. It has 15 grades of 10 steps each. The next largest, the wage grade system, covers blue-collar jobs, generally with 15 grades of five steps each.


Different occupations, and different levels of work within an occupation, are assigned a grade level through a process called classification. Employees typically start at the first step of the pertinent grade, though in some cases they begin higher.

Advancement within a grade is much like climbing a ladder. Most general schedule employees move up a step every one, two or three years. Those within-grade raises, paid to everyone performing at least at an acceptable level, increase pay by about 3 percent. Employees also can move up faster based on good performance, and more rarely are denied advancement because of poor performance. Policies for wage grade employees are similar.

In addition to advancement up the step ladder, employees can receive higher pay on being promoted. Some occupations feature largely automatic advancement to higher grades after the employee meets certain performance standards and waiting times, called career ladder promotions.

In most years a general raise is effective each January, determined by the budget process in Congress the previous year. These raises have the effect of increasing the pay rate assigned to each grade and step.

For general schedule employees, the pay raise is divided into two parts. There’s an across-the-board component that goes to all GS employees, plus a locality component. Locality pay is based on where the employee works, not where he or she lives, and is linked to local labor market conditions, not cost of living. The result is that even jobs in the same occupation and at the same level of work pay differently from one place to the next. The metropolitan areas with the highest pay rates include San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

Pay rates for wage grade employees also vary, depending on pay comparisons in a larger number of localities. However, in practice, their raises have been capped for many years at the amount paid to GS employees in a given area.

For many years, GS raises were linked to raises for military personnel in the name of “pay parity” between federal civilian and uniformed personnel. However, due to a law passed in late 2010, federal salary schedules were frozen at 2010 rates for 2011 and 2012. Within-grade raises remain allowed, however.

As an alternative to the grade and step systems, some agencies operate under pay “banding,” in which grades are combined into a few ranges and agency management has greater leeway in setting salaries within a range. Pay banding also provides more leeway in rewarding employees for good performance, job accomplishments, completed training and other signs of the employee’s value to the organization.

One of the largest examples of this approach was the National Security Personnel System at the Defense Department, which at its peak covered more than 220,000 employees. But a 2009 law ordered its end, largely due to controversy over the pay for performance element, and employees are being moved out, mostly to the GS system, through calendar year 2011. Other pay banding arrangements remain in operation, however, including in parts of the Defense Department.

There are numerous special pay programs that can set pay above the basic rates as well. For example, some general schedule employees are covered by “special rate” designations, which give them higher pay for being in high-demand occupations. Many of the government’s information technology employees are paid under this system, giving them pay up to 30 percent higher than what they would get if their jobs were regular general schedule positions. Many technical and engineering positions also are covered, as are some clerical and other jobs.

There also are separate pay systems for high-ranking executives or scientific professionals, law enforcement officers, medical personnel, the Foreign Service and other specialized occupations.