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Federal Pay and Benefits Guide

Federal Pay and Benefits Guide

By Dennis Damp, Excerpt from The Book of US Government Jobs, 10th Edition

Job security, good pay and an excellent retirement system are just a few of the top reasons most people seek federal employment. Others consider government careers because of desirable travel opportunities, training availability, diverse occupations and the ability to locate jobs nationwide and overseas. The average annual federal worker’s compensation, pay plus benefits, in 2006 was $106,871 compared to $53,288 for the private sector according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

In an effort to give agencies more flexibility in how they pay their workers, there are now several different pay systems in effect or planning to be implemented over the next few years within the federal government. The two largest departments that are experimenting with new pay systems are the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. A number of agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration implemented core compensation pay band systems as early as 1995. The new systems incorporate fewer, but wider, pay “bands,” instead of grade levels. Pay increases, under these new systems, are almost entirely based on performance, as opposed to length of service.

There are eight predominant pay systems. Approximately half of the workforce is under the General Schedule (GS) pay scale, 20 percent are paid under the Postal Service rates, and about 10 percent are paid under the Prevailing Rate Schedule (WG) Wage Grade classification. The remaining pay systems are for the Executive Schedule, Foreign Service, Special Salary Rates and Nonappropriated Fund Instrumentalities pay scales, and Veterans Health Administration.

The majority of professional and administrative federal workers are still paid under the General Schedule (GS). The General Schedule has 15 grades of pay for civilian white-collar and service workers, and smaller within-grade step increases that occur based on length of service and quality of performance. New employees usually start at the first step of a grade; however, if the position in question is difficult to fill, entrants may receive somewhat higher pay or special rates. Almost all physician and engineer positions, for example, fall into this category. In an effort to make federal pay more responsive to local labor market conditions, federal employees working in the continental US receive locality pay. The specific amount of locality pay is determined by survey comparisons of private sector wage rates and federal wage rates in the relevant geographic area. At its highest level, locality pay can lead to an increase of as much as 26 percent above the base salary. Every January a pay adjustment tied to changes in private sector pay levels is divided between an across-the-board pay increase in the General Schedule and locality pay increases.

In December 2005, the average wage for full-time workers paid under the General Schedule was $63,812. [For] all pay plans, average pay was $67,186. General attorneys, who earned $105,557 on average -- represented one of the higher paid occupations, while average income for nursing assistants was only about half the average for all occupations.

For those in craft, repair, operator and laborer jobs, the Federal Wage System (FWS) is used to pay these workers. This schedule sets federal wages so that they are comparable to prevailing regional wage rates for similar types of jobs. As a result, wage rates paid under the FWS can vary significantly from one locality to another.

In addition to base pay and bonuses, federal employees may receive incentive awards. These one-time awards, ranging from $25 to $10,000, are bestowed for a significant suggestion, a special act or service, or sustained high job performance. Some workers also may receive “premium” pay, which is granted when the employee must work overtime, on holidays, on weekends, at night or under hazardous conditions.

General Schedule (GS) pay varies from the GS-1 level at $16,630 per annum to $120,981 per annum at step 10 of the GS-15 grade, not including locality pay adjustments. The General Schedule Base Pay Table shows the “base rate” that is used to establish each of the 32 Locality Pay Tables. If you work in an area that isn’t covered by a Locality Area your pay will be determined using the “Rest of the US” table. The adjustment to the basic rate ranges from a +12.64 percent for the “Rest of the US” to a high of +26.65 percent for the Houston Locality Area.

There are a number of special compensation systems that augment the general schedule. Physicians receive signing bonuses for a one-year continued-service agreement and additional bonuses for two years. The Federal Aviation Administration pays employees in safety-related careers under a “Core Compensation” multi-pay band system. Organizations such as the General Accounting Office (GAO), NASA and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology either are exempt from or have exceptions to the GS pay system.

Visit the book’s companion Web site for additional information.

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