Basics of the Government Pay Scale: Grades, levels, steps?

Author:  Yeva Ragauskayte


Just like all the programs and agencies that make up government, the pay scale is very defined and categorized.  At first, however, pay grades, levels, and steps, may seem confusing since these terms are generally not used in describing pay scales in industry.

But in actuality, the federal pay scale is not very complicated.  Each job in the government is assigned a pay “grade”.  The work level, range of responsibility, and difficulty determines the pay grade of a position.  The higher the number of the grade, the more responsibility and skill that job will entail and thus the employee will be paid a larger salary than someone in a lower grade.

Within each grade there are ten steps through which the employee may be promoted based on high quality performance.  This is called a Quality Step Increase (QSI) and will increase the employee’s base pay, which cannot be reduced later on unless he or she becomes a horrible employee.  Thus, an employee’s salary may be raised without moving out of the grade itself.  For example, an employee at GS-1 (grade 1), Step 1 will be paid about $16,000 while an employee at GS-1, Step 10 will receive $20,000.  This is part of the incentive program the government uses to inspire better employees.

There are two promotion patterns when changing grades.  Employees working in clerical and technical occupations can only be promoted one grade at a time.  Those working as professionals, specialists, and administrators can be promoted two grade levels at a time from GS-5 to GS-11; however, after GS-11, they also cannot jump more than one grade at a time.  The highest grade is GS-15 with the highest salary, which is also the cap for all the salaries.  In any given year, a government employee may not be paid more than that limit.  As of January 2005, the top salary allowed is $116,517.  

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the federal government’s human resource agency and its website provides a significant amount of information about pay, benefits and any other questions that federal employees need answered.  It also contains clear tables that show the grades and steps, as well as the salaries that correspond to both.


The U.S. Office of Personnel Management


Links to Pay Scale Tables:

Table for General Schedule

Schedule for Law Enforcement Officers

Schedule for Executive and Senior Level Employee

Schedule for Senior Level and Scientific or Professional Positions