The flat tops of the civil service

Semi-trick question:

Two GS-15 feds walk into your office, one is from Huntsville, Ala., the other is from San Francisco. How do you tell the difference?

All things being equal, the fed from San Francisco will probably be a little shorter with a flattened head. The result of years of bumping up against an artificial but very solid salary ceiling. Hitting that ceiling has a lifetime impact on both pay and pension.

That ceiling on maximum salary is $157,100. For GS-15s in San Francisco, the pay cap begins at the sixth step of their grade.


In Los Angeles and Houston, the third top-paying cities in the federal government, GS-15s come up against the pay cap in the eighth step of their grade.

In Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston, GS- 15s can move up and get pay raises until they hit the cap at the ninth step of their grade.

Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, said GS-15s are capped at the 10 step in Denver, Philadelphia and Seattle. Unless executive pay rates go up next year, more and more GS-15s will bump up against it. The maximum GS federal salary is limited to Level IV of the executive service. That has been $157,100 for several years now.

Niehaus was the leadoff guest on our Your Turn radio program Wednesday. She had some interesting things to say about the impact of the pay cap on government, and about the ongoing debate over what Uncle Sam pays women vs. men. Feds in the same grades and steps get the same salary regardless of sex. But because women sometimes enter the workforce later, leave to raise families, and go into occupations that pay less, the most recent study says they earn 87 cents for every dollar Uncle Sam pays male employees.

Meanwhile, a Federal News Radio reader crunched the numbers and estimates that the pay cap means a salary loss of $19,960 per year for capped workers in San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland. The loss is almost $11,000 a year for top-level GS-15s in Houston and New York City.

Often forgotten in the pay cap debate is the fact that it creates a lifetime reduction in the annuity that the GS-15 will get upon retirement. Retirement income is based on the employee’s length-of-service and highest three- year average salary, not what he or she should — by law — be making.

To read the column showing the impact of the cap, click here.

To listen to the discussion on the pay cap, and gender pay inequity in government, click here.


Compiled by Jack Moore

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