Uncle Sam has worked very hard to create a system that ensures employees doing similar work are similarly compensated. Pay is tightly tied to what one does, which is clearly spelled out a job description. In most cases, the person who interviews you for a particular job will have only limited ability to impact your base salary. However, in an effort to effectively compete with the private sector, there may be add-ons available in the form of premium pay, bonuses or allowances, to put a little more heft into your future paycheck. For more details, read on.
Each job in the federal government is assigned to a series, based upon the major duties of the position. For example, the GS-0808 series includes many jobs related to architecture, including Architectural Interns, Architects, and Supervisory Architects; regardless of whether the job requires a specialization in research, project planning, construction drawings, etc. Within each series are different grades. The more complex the job gets, the higher the grade.
Every series is assigned to a particular pay schedule. A pay schedule is a table that lists the salary or wage ranges for each grade (regardless of the series). While there are many, many pay schedules, the GS (General Schedule) covers the vast majority of white-collar civilian occupations in the federal system. In our example above, you can tell the pay rate for the "Architect" position will be found in the general schedule, because a "GS" precedes the series number. In specific urban areas, where the cost of living can be significantly higher, the entire general schedule is adjusted up. These adjustments are referred to as locality pay (geographic location-based comparability payments that are intended to compensate General Schedule employees for pay disparities within their local labor markets). Locality pay is still considered part of one's base pay.
The FWS (Federal Wage System) is a pay setting system that covers many WG (Wage Grade) positions--hourly blue-collar positions. The goal of this system is to ensure that; if you are a federal trade, craft or laboring employee, your pay will be similar to the pay of others in federal jobs like yours in your wage area, and it will be in line with the pay for similar private sector jobs. For example, if you are applying for a job as a pipe fitter in Denver, you can expect the pay rate will be similar to what other tradespersons working with pipes in the Denver area are earning, regardless of whom they are working for. However, the rate may be quite different from what someone with your qualifications can earn in DC. There are separate pay scales established each year for the different types of occupations, and so there are a variety of pay schedules for employees covered by the Federal Wage System.
Within each grade there are a series of "steps" that reflect a salary increase. New employees normally start at step 1 of the grade at which you are hired. GS and WG employees both receive periodic "step" increases as long as performance remains satisfactory and one has not reached the maximum for his or her grade level.
Allowances, bonuses and premium pay can have a significant impact on the amount of money you take home in a year. Allowances and bonuses are money made available by agencies for employees in occupations where, without it, it would be difficult to keep the positions filled. For example, allowances can be provided to all employees in positions with retention problems. In another example, members of the uniformed services may get subsistence as well as housing allowances. Recruitment or relocation bonuses are often noted on the vacancy announcement, and may be as high as 25% of the base pay.
Premiums are money automatically earned to compensate for non-standard or difficult work schedule, excessive hours, etc. Differentials and hazard pay fall under this heading. Employees receive premium pay for overtime work when they are paid for the extra hours, as opposed to earning compensatory time. There are several situations when an employee may receive premium pay as a regular supplement to his or her paycheck, because of special circumstances present in the job that will require the employee to work substantial amounts of overtime on a regularly recurring and relatively predictable basis. For such situations, notably for law enforcement officers, employees who regularly serve in a standby status, and employees who must work "administratively uncontrollable overtime" on a regular basis, employees may receive additional pay on an annual basis, and will be paid the same additional pay with each pay period.
Differentials are a special category of premium pay and are used to compensate particular employees within a larger group of peers because of unusual circumstances with regard to their working conditions, schedules, etc. Some examples are night differentials, holiday pay, pay for Sunday work, etc. A differential remains in place as long as the unusual circumstances continue, but is not considered part of "basic pay" and so is eliminated once those circumstances change. A differential is usually computed as a percentage of basic pay. Often, the computation will use a General Schedule, Wage Grade schedule, or special rate salary as the base salary for application of the percentage.
Certain GS employees are eligible for hazard pay, another special type of premium pay. WG employees are similarly eligible to receive "environmental differential pay". Hazard pay "is paid in addition to additional pay or allowances under other statutes." The amount is substantial (often 25% of base pay) and offered as compensation for exposure to a vast range of different physical, psychological, chemical, etc. hazards.
Another benefit to Federal employment is that employees who contribute to the agency's mission above and beyond the expected job performance can expect to receive recognition for their efforts. That recognition can come in the form of cash awards, honorary awards, or time off the job without charge to leave. It's also possible to receive cash or other recognition for suggesting or proposing changes in work operations that directly increase the efficiency or effectiveness of the operation.