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How Does the General Schedule Step Scale Work?

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Most of the salaries of U.S. government civil service jobs fall under the General Schedule pay system. The system provides for a series of grade and step increases in pay which permits an employee to advance through a given profession as their experience and proficiency increases.

The General Schedule System

There are fifteen grades within within the federal government general schedule pay system. Each job title is assigned a series of grades associated with the job, progressing in salary from lowest to highest. Within each grade, there are a series of ten steps, which are salary increases. These are known as step increases or within-grade increases.

Entering Government Service

When a person is hired by the federal government, the employee is assigned a pay grade within the job series, depending upon his or her knowledge, education and experience. For instance, an entry-level biologist with a bachelor's degree may enter federal service as a GS-5. Within the same job series, an advanced researcher with a doctorate. and many years prior experience may enter as a GS-13 or higher. In almost all cases, a person entering government service will start at step one of their grade.

Step Increases

After one year of service, the person is eligible for a within-grade increase. If performance has been satisfactory and a supervisors approves, the individual moves from step one to step two, with the associated increase in pay. The individual may increase in steps annually until step four, when the waiting period changes to every two years between steps four through seven. After step seven, the period of performance changes to every three years through step ten.

Exceptions to Step Increases

If an employee's work is not satisfactory, a step increase may not be awarded. On the other hand, exemplary employees may be eligible for a Quality Step Increase. This is an increase given in addition to their scheduled increases. To be eligible for a QSI, an employee must have the highest rating possible on the annual appraisal and must not have received another QSI within the previous year.


Step increases provide employees with an increase in salary as they become more proficient in their professional career. Employees may also be promoted from their present grade to the next higher grade as they take on more professional responsibility. When this occurs, they once again start at a lower step and become eligible for step increases within their new grade.

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