General Schedule (or GS) is the name used to describe a payscale utilized by the majority of white collar personnel in the civil service of the United States Government. In Korea, it is common to sometimes hear people who are working for the US military state that they are a GS, as opposed to a GI.
(The term GS is sometimes mistakenly referred to as an abbreviation for "Government Service" or "Government Servant.") 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. The GS is intended to keep Federal salaries equitable among various occupations ("equal pay for equal work").
The GS includes most professional, technical, administrative, and clerical positions in the Federal civil service. The Wage Grade (WG) schedule includes most federal blue-collar workers. As of 30 September 2004, 71% of Federal civilian employees were paid under the GS; the remaining 29% were paid under other systems such as the Federal Wage System for Federal blue-collar civilian employees, the Senior Executive Service / Senior Level and the Executive Schedule for high-ranking Federal employees, and the pay schedules for the United States Postal Service and the Foreign Service. In addition, some federal agencies, such as the United States Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve System have their own unique pay schedules.
Administration of the General Schedule
The Office of Personnel Management administers the GS pay schedule on behalf of other Federal agencies, although changes to the GS must normally be authorized by the President (via Executive Order) or 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. Most positions in the competitive service are paid according to the GS. In addition, many (although not all) positions in the excepted service use the GS as a basis for setting pay rates.
Grade structure and step increases
The GS is separated into 15 grades (GS-1, GS-2, etc. up to GS-15); each grade is separated into 10 steps. Entry-level positions are generally in the GS 1–7 range; GS 8–12, mid-level; and GS 13–15, top-level. A new GS employee is normally employed in the first step of their assigned GS grade, although recent legislation authorizes initial appointment at a higher step (at the employing agency's discretion) as a recruiting incentive. Each step above step 1 (2,3,4, etc.) is normally earned after serving a prescribed period of service (at one, two or three year intervals) in at least a satisfactory manner, although a GS employee can also be advanced to a higher step without regard to length of service based on outstanding work performance (Quality Step Increase). 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.
Promotions and advancement procedures
Some GS positions provide for advancement within a so-called "career ladder", meaning that an incumbent can advance up the ladder in a particular job, normally on an annual basis, until he/she has reached the full performance level for that job. This is typical for many professional positions designed for college graduates.
For example, a recent college graduate with a bachelor's degree may take a GS position at either the GS-5 or GS-7 level, depending on the job itself, the individual's academic achievement, prior experience (including but not limited to military service) and other factors. On or about the anniversary of the employee's appointment, assuming the employee has performed at least "fully successful" (i.e., adequately) in the job, management most likely will (but is not automatically required to) promote the employee to the next grade in the ladder. Most career ladders advance in two-grade intervals, from GS-5 to GS-7, from GS-7 to GS-9, and from GS-9 to GS-11. After one has reached GS-11 in a career ladder, promotions then progress normally in one-grade intervals, from GS-11 to GS-12, from GS-12 to GS-13, etc. until the full performance level has been reached. In most cases, the full performance target grade for a career ladder will range from GS-11 to GS-13. Promotions to GS-14 and GS-15 are almost always the result of competition for a vacant position. Clerical and administrative positions frequently are graded between GS-3 to GS-9, with promotion opportunities (when available) in one-grade intervals (e.g., GS-3 to GS-4, GS-4 to GS-5, etc.).
In other cases, particularly in the clerical and administrative fields, a position will have little or no promotion potential and in those cases, an employee desiring to advance will need to compete for a higher-graded vacancy as one becomes available. Many times, particularly outside of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, a geographic transfer (or transfer to another Federal agency) will be necessary in order to advance in GS grade due to the location and availability of vacant positions.
Military rank equivalency
Although GS civilians do not have military rank (by virtue of their GS position), several military regulations include civilian / military grade equivalencies for protocol purposes. For example, a GS-9 is considered equivalent to a second lieutenant or ensign (rank)|ensign (O-1), while a GS-15 (top of the General Schedule) is the equivalent of a colonel or Navy captain (O-6). Senior Executive Service (SES) and Senior Level grades correspond for protocol purposes to flag officers (generals and admirals). These grade equivalencies were created for the purpose of treating civilians serving alongside the Armed Forces who have been captured as prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention. They are also used by the Department of Defense for other purposes such as assignment of permanent and transient quarters to eligible civilian employees.
Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990
Prior to January 1994, GS personnel were generally paid the same amount (for a given grade and step) regardless of where they worked. Beginning in January 1994, a locality pay system was introduced (as part of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990) (FEPCA) which provides an additional amount for each grade varying by region within the continental United States (CONUS). A common misconception is that the locality adjustments are determined according to cost of living fluctuations and other regional considerations. In fact, the adjustments are determined according to the cost of employment in a given area as measured by the Department of Labor's Employment Cost Index (ECI), which does not necessarily correlate to the better-known Consumer Price Index (CPI) that tracks consumer prices. 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. As a result, FEPCA has never been fully implemented.
GS personnel assigned overseas
Personnel based outside CONUS (e.g., Alaska, Hawaii, U.S. territories, foreign overseas areas) do not receive locality adjustments, although they may instead receive certain non-taxable allowances such as cost-of-living allowances, post allowances and housing allowances in accordance with other laws. Federal civilian workers based in the United States do not normally receive housing allowances or government-furnished housing. By contrast, the tax-free allowances paid during overseas assignments (especially the housing allowances) are generally a terrific incentive to serve overseas and are highly coveted.
Politicization of the Federal pay process
Since the issue of Federal employee pay necessarily takes place within the larger context of the annual (and highly political) Federal budget process, the process of determining the annual Federal employee pay raise itself has become very political. Although FEPCA provides for an automatic formula to determine the annual pay raise, this formula has been ignored due to the cost of implementation. The President has authority under FEPCA to submit an "alternative" pay plan with a lower raise than that called for by the FEPCA formula (or none at all) "if because of national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare" [Title 5, U.S. Code, §5303(b)(1)]. In reality, the final pay raise has been decided by Congress, which has authorized higher increases than what were originally requested by the President in his annual budget submissions. The primary reason given by Congressional leaders for a higher civilian raise has been the maintenance of "pay parity" with military pay, where the President has normally been more generous and there has been less controversy, particularly after September 11th. Once the appropriations bill containing the pay raise proposal has been signed into law, the President then issues an executive order to implement the raise.
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", that is, pay increases should be awarded based more on merit and work performance and less on seniority and length of service. As with the issue of annual cost-of-living raises, pay for performance in the federal government has also become very politicized. The best known efforts in this area are the pay systems created for the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense in 2002 and 2003 respectively. These efforts have been very controversial and are being challenged presently by Federal labor unions and other employee groups. As part of his fiscal 2007 budget proposal, 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 GS for calendar year 2006 (including locality pay charts) is available here.