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Number of highly paid federal employees increasing rapidly

View of the White House
View of the White House

New research published on February 17th shows that the number of higher graded employees working for the federal government has increased significantly.

The federal pay system is complex. The most frequent system used (with variations) is the General Schedule (GS) which determines pay for federal employees based on a base pay system plus an extra amount for numerous localities, primarily in large cities around the country.

This federal GS pay calculator will display the pay for various localities and pay grades (and steps within each pay grade). Some agencies pay higher wages than the general schedule for various reasons.

According to, Jeff Neal, the former head of the human resources department for Homeland Security (called the "human capital officer" in the current bureaucratic slang used in many agencies), the number of federal employees at a federal pay grade of 15 in the Washington, DC area was almost 40,000 people in 2013. Outside of DC, the number of people at this pay grade is almost 21,000.

In the Washington, DC area, a federal employee at a pay grade of GS-15 can receive pay ranging from approximately $125,000 to $157,000 per year. An employee at a grade 13 in the Washington area will make between 89,924 and $116,901. All figures reflect the 2014 federal pay scale.

According to Mr. Neal, the number of people in the top four pay grades of the federal government (GS-12 – 15) is going up fast. Grade inflation (pay grades going up without substantial changes in the person's job duties) has become more common in the federal government.

In 15 years, the number of federal employees in the top pay grades has increased by 29.4%. The percentage of employees in the top grades has increased from 39.0% to 49.1%. In short, the number of employees in pay grades of 12, 13 and 14 positions have increased considerably more than the overall workforce.

The average age of federal employees is also changing. Many new employees were hired from the "baby boomer" generation and a number of these people are now retiring. As a result, the average length of service for employees in these higher grades is going down. For example, in 1998 the average length of service for grade 15 federal employees was 21 years. For grade 13 employees in 1998, the average length of service was 18.8 years. In 2013, the average length of service was 19.2 and 15.9 years, respectively.

In a surprising twist, the number of people in grade 15 outside of the Washington, DC metropolitan area has gone down 19.9%. The number of people in grade 15 in the Washington area has increased by 48.8%.

The new data show the number of employees ages 20 – 34 and over age 50 is increasing in senior positions. Overall, the average length of federal service is going down.

We know that many of these older employees will be retiring in the next few years and younger people will be moving into the higher grades at an increasing rate. Some aspects of this trend are positive as it will probably introduce new ideas and enthusiasm to the job from the younger employees. It also means much less experienced federal employees will be in some of the most responsible positions.

The data also demonstrate that there are more highly paid jobs in the government than was previously the case. We do not know if this is because federal jobs are now more complex or if agencies are just paying people at a higher grade without regard to the actual jobs being performed.

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