What is Above GS-15?
What is the most you can make in the federal government? Most federal employees are on the General Schedule (GS) pay scale. By understanding this pay system we can determine the highest salary most federal employees can obtain. GS pay scale has three main components: Grade, Step and Location.
Grade is a lot like rank in the military — an increase in your GS grade is considered a promotion. The other variable, Step, is based on your time-in-service; In other words, step is based on how long you have worked for the government.
GS Grades range from 1 to 15 and Steps range from 1 to 10. So the highest paid position most federal employees can obtain is Grade 15, Step 10.
Locality Pay is a pay adjustment based on where you work. The locality adjustments are designed to ensure federal salaries remain comparable to similar private sector jobs in the same region. The regions with the highest locality adjustment are San Fransisco, New York, Houston and other major metropolises.
There is a hard cap on how much anyone on the General Schedule Pay Schedule can earn each year. But this cap only applies to employees in Grade 15, who work in an area with a high locality adjustment, and are in one of the top Steps.
Senior Executive Service (SES)
This hard cap is based on the lower end of the Senior Executive Service (SES) Pay Scale. SES is the most common pay scale above General Schedule. SES is structured differently than GS. SES has only 5 levels with level 1 being the highest. There is also no Step system or Locality adjustment in SES.
SES Level IV, the second lowest level in the SES schedule, is used as the upper cap for all GS salaries. At the time of writing, in 2016, the upper cap is just over $160,000 per year.
In addition to SES, there are several other pay scales above the highest GS grade. Some federal agencies have established their own pay scale systems. These unique pay scales do not have the same limitations as General Schedule. So, while these one-off pay scales may technically be equivalent to GS, they can extend above GS.
Other Pay Scales
The Postal Service, TSA, certain divisions in the Navy, parts of the NSA, and other miscellaneous agencies use unique pay scales. Some of these one-off pay scales are referred to as "Pay Bands." Unfortunately, these pay scales are too small and diverse to cover in-depth here.