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The Only Thing More Complicated Than the Federal Government Is How Federal Employees Get Paid

Illustration by RetroClipArt.

General Schedule /jen-e-rel skej-ool/ A system of ranking federal employees that’s more arcane than the bureaucracy they run.

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In October, the Obama administration began reviewing “Force of the Future,” an initiative that would change how Defense Department employees are paid. If it works, FoF could become a model for replacing the General Schedule, the US government’s pay-and-promotion system. For federal employees, GS is also a tribal code, and a language, all its own.

The Brits originally adapted “schedule” from a Latin word for a strip of paper, to refer to a list of categories—a “schedular” tax system derives revenue from multiple sources, just as the IRS appends schedules for deductions, farm income, and interest to its Form 1040. Likewise, in 1970 the Controlled Substances Act “scheduled” drugs according to how dangerous they were.

Fittingly, then, the General Schedule was created in 1949 as part of that year’s Classification Act, placing “GS” employees—today nearly two-thirds of those on the US payroll—into 15 ranked grades. Within each are ten pay levels, and atop the whole pile is the Senior Executive Service.

A rich family of sub-jargon huddles under the GS. “Locality pay” adjusts for what it really costs to live in, say, Dallas-Fort Worth as opposed to DC, while RUS, for “rest of US,” designates anywhere the schedule doesn’t bother to account for. “Within-grade increases,” or WGIs—pronounced “wiggies”—nudge pay upward.

The GS has its own etiquette, too: Because the schedules are all made public, inquiring about a neighbor’s GS rank is equivalent to asking outright how much he or she makes. And don’t call anyone a GS, or GSer, says Jeffrey Neal, former chief human-capital officer for homeland security, because it can sound dismissive coming from an outsider. But inside agency halls, the designation is often a badge of honor.

The chief flaw of the schedule—designed for a government that was essentially an enormous paper-moving factory—is that it no longer matches reality: Half the workforce is now GS-12 or above.

This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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