Federal employee pay varies significantly depending on your education and experience on the job. A well-established general schedule pay scale, or GS, outlines the wages of federal employees by placing them into 15 distinct pay grades, which includes all job titles. Your job, experience and promotions account for where you fall on the schedule.
Federal Employee Definition
A federal employee is employed by any official federal agency, including the armed forces, cabinet departments like Treasury, State and Labor, independent agencies like NASA or CIA, and other federal entities. While some agencies have their own pay scales -- the military, for example, or the Foreign Service -- most federal employees work under the General Schedule, or GS system.
The federal general schedule contains 15 grade levels specifically for federal jobs. Jobs are classified according to the type of job, skills and education needed to fulfill the position. GS-1 is for entry-level employees in positions requiring few skills or little education. Middle grades like GS-5 or GS-7 are generally for employees that have bachelor degrees. Top grades are reserved for employees with advanced degrees or in senior positions. Employees receive an increase in pay each year in recognition of their increasing experience -- this is known as a "step increase."
Your wages can somewhat vary from the federal GS pay scale due to fluctuating costs of living in each region. For example, New York's high living costs allows for a significant increase adjustment over the base schedule. At the low end of the GS is Grade 1, Step 1, which pays $17,803, at the time of publication. A Grade 1, Step 10 employee earns $22,269. At the high end, a Grade 15, Step 1 employee receives $99,628, whereas a Grade 15, Step 10 employee earns $129,517, at the time of publication.
The point of a structured pay schedule is to create an equitable pay system that avoids discrimination. Most employee can be promoted one or two grades in the position they occupy; further promotion usually requires obtaining a more senior job. Exceptionally strong work performance can lead to multiple meritorious step increases. Federal pay scales usually are adjusted each year based on recommendations from the President and approval from Congress. Scale adjustments also account for inflation and cost of living increases.