WASHINGTON — The White House Office of Personnel Management said it will begin its annual review of so-called special pay rates for certain federal employees.

While the President can, and did, propose an alternative pay raise for federal employees next year, OPM has the authority to approve salary adjustment requests for specific occupations, grades and locations “to alleviate existing or likely significant recruitment or retention difficulties,” it said in a statement.

These challenges can arise from a work area being especially remote or removed, such as park rangers, or jobs that are particularly taxing or have “undesirable” or dangerous working conditions such law enforcement and security officers or Customs and Border Protection agents, according to OPM’s table.

Highly skilled jobs with strong salary competition from the private sector, such as engineers, health care workers, scientists and IT and cyber technicians, have also been subject to special rates separate from the General Schedule.

OPM and agencies revisit special pay rates periodically to see if they should be increased, reduced or terminated. In the past, it’s been customary for the adjustments to generally equal the across-the-board pay increase announced by the president.

That will hold true again this year. OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in the statement Wednesday that the default January 2023 adjustment for special rates will be 4.1%, mirroring President Biden’s pay plan announced in August.

Biden submitted an overall average pay increase of 4.6% for civilian federal employees, which is comprised of an across-the-board boost in basic pay of 4.1% and an average 0.5% increase in locality pay.

Agencies with special rates have included the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is also working to develop a government-wide special salary rate for GS-7 through GS-15 positions within the Information Technology Management occupational series, according to a June 7 statement by Kurt Delbene, assistant secretary for information and technology, made before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization.

“Recruiting and retaining the most skilled individuals with high-demand cybersecurity expertise is a top priority for both OIT and industry leaders alike” Delbene said. “For such employees, salaries are too low to be competitive, even when combined with compensation incentives and benefits.”

While agencies can submit special rate requests at any time, OPM’s callout at the beginning of a new government fiscal year invites agencies who want a change that is different from the default to be reflected in January.

Fiscal 2023 began Oct. 1.

How special rates are calculated

A special rate generally is calculated by adding a special rate supplement, such as a fixed-dollar amount or fixed-percentage amount, to the underlying GS base rate.

That unique adjustment may apply to federal employees in a certain locale to address existing challenges in either recruiting or retaining workers.

OPM may establish special rates for nearly any category of employee, by series, specialty, grade-level or geographic area.

The General Schedule pay scale is the federal government’s rubric, of sorts, to paying its workforce. It’s used to determine the salaries of over 70% of the 1.5 million “white collar” federal civilian employees across government.

An employee’s base pay depends on two factors: the GS pay grade of their job, and the pay grade step they have achieved, which reflects seniority or performance.

The General Schedule has 15 grades based on the level of difficulty, responsibility, and qualifications required in the job.

Each grade then has 10 step rates that are each worth approximately 3% of the employee’s salary.

At the time of a GS base pay adjustment, special rate employees will receive the same adjustment in their underlying base rate as other GS employees.

What if my agency submits nothing to OPM?

Special rate schedules will be adjusted automatically, without any agency action, in January by the same percentage used to adjust GS base rates unless OPM specifically approves an alternative.

Agencies do not need to submit any response to OPM to request percentage adjustments in special rate schedules equal to the percentage adjustment in GS base rates in January 2023.

This means that if the GS base pay adjustment implemented is 4.1%, then the default adjustment for special rate schedules will also be 4.1%.

When determining whether to request a special rate adjustment greater than the 2023 base pay adjustment, OPM advised agencies to consider providing other benefits, like relocation, student loan repayments or leave flexibilities.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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