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How Are 2020 GS Pay Scales with Locality Calculated?

For Civilian Federal Employees, the end of the calendar year marks a possibility for changes to General Schedule (GS) Pay Scales. Understanding how the system works can help you make better financial decisions for you and your family. This knowledge also allows you to make an informed career decision when comparing positions or considering a transfer. To help you make sense of it all, WAEPA has compiled a guide to GS Pay Scales:

How Are GS Pay Scales Calculated?

The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) uses three factors to calculate GS pay scales. This system applies to most Civilian Feds under the General Schedule, unlike those who are paid under the Executive and Senior Level Pay Tables.

GS Pay Grade

The GS Pay Grade system includes 15 categories of pay ranges. GS-1 is the lowest, and GS-15 is the highest. Jobs are assigned to a grade based on the level of responsibility, requirements, and other factors. For example, a position that requires a high school diploma but no experience in that field may be a GS-2 position. A position that requires a master's degree is usually a GS-9.

GS Pay Step System

The GS Pay Step system divides each pay grade into 10 steps. Each step is worth about 3% of the employee's salary, so the higher the step, the higher the salary. When an employee gets a promotion or reaches a new level of seniority, he or she moves to a higher step. In general, it takes 18 years to move from the lowest to the highest step within a single grade.

What Does Locality Mean?

Locality relates to the region where the employee works. This factor adjusts the base rate of pay for the cost of living in a geographic area. While each position is assigned to a specific grade, and each employee is assigned to a step within that grade, the pay rate will vary by location. This way, the system accommodates the needs of workers in more expensive areas, such as California or major metropolitan areas.

While the system may seem complicated, these three factors help address the most fundamental questions involved in compensating a workforce:

●      The differences between positions in terms of responsibilities, difficulties, requirements, etc.

●      The need to compensate long-term workers for their service

●      The cost-of-living differences when the workforce is located all over the country

How Is the Locality Adjustment Calculated?

Of the three determining factors, locality adjustments can be the most complicated to predict. The amount of the adjustment is calculated as a percentage rate based on data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Annual National Compensation Survey.

The tool gathers data on compensation from government and non-government sectors in locations all over the country. This information is then compared to the base pay of federal employees in similar positions to calculate the locality pay adjustment factor.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sets 47 locality areas for OPM to use in setting locality adjustments for all 50 states and all United States territories and possessions. OMB uses defined Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Combined Statistical Areas for this purpose.


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Hawaii and Alaska have their own pay scales, and 44 other locality areas center on major metropolitan areas. Locations inside the continental United States that don't fall into an established locality area are grouped as "Rest of United States."

Year over year, OPM recommends changes as needed. For example, in 2018, OPM recommended moving McKinley County in New Mexico from the "Rest of the United States" group into the Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Las Vegas pay area. The President recommends wholesale adjustments to the pay scales, and they are then approved by Congress each year. Federal employees in foreign locations are not subject to this locality adjustment system.

How Can I Use the Locality Pay Adjustment Factor Information?

Civilian Feds often earn more because of the locality pay adjustment factor. You can find the adjustment rate for your locality by visiting the locality area pay definitions published by OPM. This tool is also useful if you're considering applying for a similar position in a different part of the country; you can estimate how much higher or lower the pay might be in a new location.

One of the most important reasons to thoroughly understand your current and future compensation is to calculate your family's insurance and benefits needs. WAEPA (Worldwide Assurance for Employees of Public Agencies) offers a handy calculator to help you determine how much life insurance coverage you should consider to help protect your family’s peace of mind.

WAEPA offers Group Term Life Insurance* exclusively to Civilian Federal Employees and their families. Rates cost up to 89% less than the federally-provided FEGLI program, and coverage is fully portable if you were to change jobs or retire. WAEPA can be used as supplement or replacement for your existing coverage, and unlike FEGLI, WAEPA does not cap coverage based on your pay. You can apply for up to $1.5 million regardless of your salary. Use WAEPA’s online comparison tool to see how much you could save on your life insurance coverage.

*Underwritten by New York Life Insurance Company


 Worldwide Assurance for Employees of Public Agencies (WAEPA), is a nonprofit association (not an insurance company) formed For Feds, By Feds. The goal of WAEPA is to provide access to products and services that promote the health, welfare and financial well-being of its members. After more than 75 years in business, WAEPA has over 46,000 members. For more information, visit waepa.org, or call (800) 368-3484.

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