Dear Bureaucrat,

Federal employees at the GS-15 grade aren’t paid for step increases they have earned. This is becoming an increasing problem in the D.C. area as more and more of our top-performing people are ineligible for an increase, year after year. Though I see the problem mentioned, I have not seen any efforts to either remove that statutory cap, or raise the Exec Schedule, thereby giving capped 15′s some breathing room. With a staff of high-performing 15′s, it is harder and harder to reward them with “the gift that keeps on giving” that is a pay increase. Any news or intel on this front?

Signed, Capped

Dear Capped,

Some background so readers can follow the story: Ordinary federal civil servants are paid according to the General Schedule (GS) salary table. It lists pay grades from lowest (GS-1) to highest (GS-15). Within each pay grade there are 10 steps. A person who stays in the same job with the same GS pay grade can get small salary increases by advancing through the steps based on years of service and performance. In addition, there are locality pay adjustments, so somebody with the same GS grade and step is paid more if she works in a high-cost area such as San Francisco.

The question from Capped is about a law that says no salary for General Schedule employees can be higher than the salary for assistant secretaries on the separate pay scale for presidential appointees. If the government’s formula for what should be paid to a certain GS grade, step and locality comes to more than the assistant secretary salary, then the employee gets the capped amount rather than what the government’s formula says she is entitled to. In the Washington, D.C., area, that works out to the top four steps of GS-15 all being paid the same capped amount.

So back to your question, Capped. People who are paid less than a GS-15 might not shed a tear for those whose raises are blocked by the salary cap. But you are right that the GS-15′s who work for you are bound to be unhappy when they advance to the next step but do not get a raise for it. They might decide to leave the government, or worse, they might stay as disengaged, disgruntled employees. Maybe now that you’ve stated your concern in Federal Times, it will get noticed by the powers that be and the law will change. In the meantime, you can try some actions to make your employees less frustrated by the salary cap.

First, you can help them understand how the salary cap is set. They might feel less insulted by not getting a raise for their step increase if they know their pay is capped at the assistant secretary level.

More important, when you talk with your employees about career development, you can encourage open discussion of why they might choose to stay or move elsewhere. If an employee starts looking for jobs in the private sector or elsewhere in government, she might find that the combination of pay, pension, benefits and job security in her current job is better than anybody else offers her, even with the salary cap. The grass looks greener on the other side, except maybe when you go there and see it up close. If one of your employees does leave for a better offer, that just shows prospective employees that your office is a desirable place to build experience that will let them advance further.

Your employees will never be happy about being denied a raise by the salary cap. But if they see that you support their choice to stay or look for a better offer, then at least they will know you are a good boss.

Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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