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How are General Schedule Pay Rates Calculated?

Created: February 29, 2016 Last Modified: March 17, 2021

In the General Schedule pay system there are three components that are used to determine your pay. The three main factors are:

  • Grade,
  • Step, and
  • Locality.


Grade is related to career path. Each career has entry-level grades. Starting grade is based on your education and career experience. Then over your career you receive grade increases that equate to promotions. These pay grade increases are typically based upon performance and supervisor reviews.

Grades range from 1 to 15 with grade 15 being the highest. Grades are typically written as with the pay plan abbreviation followed by a hyphen then the grade number. General Schedule grade 13 would be written as GS-13.


Step is related to tenure or time-in-service within the government. Each grade has 10 steps with step being the highest. Steps increases are automatically rewarded at standard type increments as long as minimum performance requirements are met.

The first 3 steps are given automatically after 52 weeks. Next 3 step increase are given after 104 weeks (2 years) in the current step. Final three steps are given after 156 weeks (3 years). Once you reach the final tenth step, your step cannot increase any higher.

Under some conditions, step increases can be given as a reward for exceptional performance. Performance bases step increase are called Quality Step Increases (QSI).

Locality Adjustments

The final factor used to determine pay rate is locality. Locality adjustments are used to keep federal salaries in line with similar private sector jobs in an area. General Schedule pay rate is increased a certain percentage based on where in the country you work.

There are currently 47 locality areas. Most locality rates are located around major metropolises such as New York, Washington D.C., and San Fransisco. Locality increases range from 14% to over 30%.

Calculate General Schedule Pay

Grade and Step create a grid of different pay rates. To determine your pay rate, find the intersection of your grade an step in the GS Base Pay Table.

Once you have your base pay, multiple that rate by your locality adjustment. If you are grade 13, step 5 in 2016; your base pay would be $83,694. If you work at Fort Meade in Maryland, you would be included in the Washington D.C. locality area which has an adjustment of 29.2%.

$83,694 x 1.292 = $108,133

After multiplying base pay by locality adjustment, your total pay for a GS-13, Step 5 in the greater D.C. area is $108,133 per year.

Other Factors

While Grade, Step, and Locality and the three main factors for determining GS pay, there are several other edge cases that can also effect pay. Firstly, GS pay is capped at Senior Executive Schedule (SES) Level IV. SES is the pay scale directly above GS. No one on the GS pay scale is allowed to make more the an SES Level IV employee. At the time of writing, the GS cap is at $160,300 per year. This cap only effects GS-15 employees with an upper step and located in a region with a high locality adjustment.

Secondly, there are several "Specialty" pay rates in the GS system. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sets special rates for jobs that are particularly undesirable or for positions that are difficult to fill. There are hundreds of special pay rates that change year to year. The complete list of special pay rates can be found here.

Finally, GS employees also receive pay raises each year when congress or the president can issue across-the-board raises for all federal employees.

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