To an outsider looking in, federal pay systems can be difficult to understand. Our mission is to help clear up some of the confusion. Basically there are five different pay systems:

  • The General Schedules (GS)
  • Federal Wage System (FWS)
  • General Law (GL) 
  • Foreign Service (FS)
  • Senior Executive Service (SES)

The General Schedules (GS)

Over 1.5 million workers fall under this pay system, making it the most popular of them all. It has 15 grades or salary levels – GS1 to GS15 – with 10 steps in each grade. Advancing up in steps can take anywhere between 6 months to 3 years within a specific grade; to get from Step 1 to Step 10 takes on average 18 years. In addition to length of service, advancement is also based on satisfactory job performance. The GS pay system generally covers civilian Federal employees in professional, technical, administrative, and clerical positions. A typical breakdown of the grades are:

  • GS-3 or GS-4: Typically, internships or student jobs
  • GS-5 to GS-7: Most entry-level positions
  • GS-8 to GS-12: Mid-level positions
  • GS-13 to GS-15: Top-level supervisory positions

In theory under the GS system, all like graded jobs pay the same. In other words, an GS-5 Step 5 administrative specialist would make the same regardless of location within the U.S. In reality, this isn’t always true because of locality pay, a pay adjustment to make up for the high cost of living in certain areas. As an example of pay range within a grade, a GS7 Step 1 starts out at $35,009 per year and tops out at Step 10 at $45,508, before locality pay if authorized.

Moving up from one step to the next higher is known as a step increase; moving up to the next grade is a promotion. When promoted, an individual doesn’t necessarily start out at Step 1 in the new grade. Because a promoted individual will make more than they were making at the lower grade, they will start at the lowest step in that grade that still equates to a pay raise. For example, an individual slotted at GS-5 Step 5, and promoted to GS-6, may end up at Step 4 in the new grade to get an increase in pay.

Some jobs are classified as career ladders. For example, a job might be listed on the job announcement as a GS-5/7/9. That means the person in that position can move though those grades and steps without ever having to change position.

Federal Wage System (FWS)

The FWS, also known as Wage Grade, is an hourly-based pay system (instead of salary) for blue-collar workers. The pay under this pay system aligns with what similar jobs in the private sector pays for trade, craft, labor, and other blue collar jobs.

There are three classes in this pay grade – WG (worker), WL (leader), and WS (supervisor). Each class has 15 grades with five steps in each grade, except for WS which has 19 grades. It takes about 6 years to get to Step 5 of a grade.

Advancement to higher steps results from satisfactory job performance and length of service. Because this pay system is locality-based, one benefit of it is that the pay rates equate to what similar jobs pay within a geographical area. For example in the Denver, CO area, WG08 Step 1 starts out at $21.78 per hour and tops out at $25.72 at Step 5.

Pay surveys are done periodically to maintain equality of pay with the private sector. Under the FWS system, a specific graded job and step in one location could pay more or less than that same one in another geographical area.

General Law (GL)

Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) are employed by 130 different Federal agencies and paid using the GL pay system, a derivative of the General Schedule. The GL pay system uses 8 grades with 10 steps per grade. Like GS, pay is determined based on the grade level of the job, step and then adjusted with locality pay if authorized. For example, a GL-6 starts out at Step 1 at $36,756 and tops out at $46,210 at Step 10.

Foreign Service (FS)

Used by the Department of State, Commerce, and Agriculture for their positions stationed overseas, it uses 9 pay grades with 14 steps in each grade, from the lowest FS-9 to the highest FS-1. At mid-range, an FS-5 Step 1 makes $44,250 and tops out at Step 14 at $64,983.

Senior Executive Service (SES)

SES is different from the rest as it does not have grades, but levels. Employees selected for high-level executive positions are paid based on performance, education and experience. These positions typically occur right under Presidential appointees and account for 75% of heads of Federal agencies. Salaries range from Level V at $150,200 to Level 1 at $205,700 per year.

Fair pay for work done is just one benefit of working for the Federal government. Some of the benefits equally attractive include leave (vacation, family and sick), retirement, paid travel, and for veterans, seniority based on military service.

Is healthcare your chosen career? Stay tuned – the next article in our series on federal jobs will discuss healthcare jobs at the Federal level. 

Related News

Kness retired in November 2007 as a Senior Noncommissioned Officer after serving 36 years of service with the Minnesota Army National Guard of which 32 of those years were in a full-time status along with being a traditional guardsman. Kness takes pride in being able to still help veterans, military members, and families as they struggle through veteran and dependent education issues.