“Employees who occupy permanent positions earn [within-grade increases] upon meeting the following three requirements
established by law: The employee’s performance must be at an acceptable level of competence. To meet this requirement, an employee’s most recent performance rating of record must be at least Level 3 (‘Fully Successful’ or equivalent). The employee must have completed the required waiting period for advancement to the next higher step. The employee must not have received an ‘equivalent increase’ in pay during the waiting period.”
That is the federal government Office of Personnel Management’s explanation for when pay increases are allotted for federal employees. On the surface, this appears to be not automatic, but a merit-based system with a degree of seniority with waiting periods between steps in order to qualify for a pay raise.
As if the pay raises were rare.
However, a deeper look at the Sept. 2016 OPM Fedscope data finds that most employees appear to be getting more pay increases generally as a function of how long they have served with some variation, with employees getting a raise about once every other year.
Looking at non-seasonal, full-time, General Schedule (GS) and Equivalently Graded, Washington, D.C.-based federal employees (one of the largest crop of federal employees at about 124,000) as a representative sample, and using the D.C. locality pay as a guide, starting with GS-4 on up (there were only 313 non-seasonal, full-time employees below that grade in D.C. in the Fedscope system):
- the average GS-4 employee (total 238) makes $36,459 (between steps 5 and 6 which can take up to 7 years) and has served 10.2 years on the job;
- the average GS-5 employee (total 1,241) makes $40,857 (between steps 5 and 6 which can take up to 7 years) and has served 10.6 years;
- the average GS-6 employee (total 1,332) makes $47,908 (between steps 7 and 8 which can take up to 12 years) and has served 13.9 years;
- the average GS-7 employee (total 3,448) makes $50,894 (between steps 5 and 6 which can take up to 7 years) and has served 12 years;
- the average GS-8 employee (total 1,779) makes $59,867 (between steps 7 and 8 which can take up to 12 years) and has served 18.9 years;
- the average GS-9 employee (total 5,734) makes $58,776 (between steps 4 and 5 which can take up to 5 years) and has served 11.3 years;
- the average GS-10 (total 933) makes $68,809 (between steps 6 and 7 which can take up to 9 years) and has served 12.5 years;
- the average GS-11 employee (total 7,929) makes $71,996 (between steps 4 and 5 which can take up 5 years) and has served 12.5 years;
- the average GS-12 employee (total 16,069) makes $87,541 (between steps 4 and 5 which can take up to 5 years) and have served 13.7 years;
- the average GS-13 (total 33,068) makes $105,789 (between steps 6 and 7 which can take up to 7 years) and has served 14.7 years;
- the average GS-14 (total 30,934) makes $127,245 (between steps 7 and 8 which can take up to 9 years) and has served 16.5 years; and
- the average GS-15 (total 21,810) makes $152,070 (between steps 7 and 8 which can take up to 9 years) and has served 18.4 years.
Sure, nothing “automatic” there, except the average employee appears to get a raise approximately every other year on the job. Yes, there are waiting periods, but moving through the steps does appear to be a consistent function of time served.
Add to that the fact that it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal employee — an onerous process that can take up to two years — and what emerges is very much a seniority system. Perhaps managers are just checking boxes when they fill out these performance evaluations, but even with that there could be a perverse incentive for most employees to be checked off as competent. After all, if employees under management are not competent, then that might speak poorly of their managers. Thus, by qualifying lower-level employees for pay increases, managers in turn could be helping to qualify themselves for their own pay increases.
In 2016, the average federal employee made $39.19 an hour or $81,665 a year, well above what private sector workers made at $25.67, which works out to about $53,400 if you assume 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, according to OPM and Bureau of Labor of Statistics data.
Anyone looking in from the outside has the right to question whether federal employee pay increases are actually being earned, since the likelihood for the average employee is to be significantly above step 1, no matter the grade, and therefore more likely than not to have gotten a pay raise based on how long they were there, getting raises about once every other year.
Perhaps the average employee is pretty much competent, but that does not mean their career trajectories will necessarily be reflected in the experiences of millions of Americans struggling to get by in this slow-growth economic environment.
Is this truly a government of the people, by the people and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln once declared in the Gettysburg Address?
For the average American who does not work for the federal government and has not seen a pay bump for many years, these figures could be good reason to reevaluate their relationship with their national government in Washington, D.C. How can the government represent the people if its employees do not live like the people?
This is a guest post by Robert Romano senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.
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