For the criminal justice professional, a federal law enforcement job can provide a stable career with dependable, well-structured advancement opportunities. People with a bachelor’s degree from a program such as Lamar University’s online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice (BSCJ) can enter federal law enforcement at a mid-level pay grade job. Those with specialized, previous law enforcement experience and exceptional academic performance during college can qualify for even higher starting federal pay grades.
But how do these pay grades work? What are they based on, and how are salaries and salary growth calculated? If you are considering a federal law enforcement job, understanding federal pay structure is probably important to you. What can you expect at the entry level and at the most advanced and senior levels? Having a good grasp on how federal pay is broken down can also help in planning your college education, analyzing the potential costs and benefits of earning a degree, especially when considering student loans.
What Is the General Schedule Pay System?
The General Schedule (GS) is a federal pay system used to categorize and structure base pay and pay increases. Not all federal agencies use the GS pay rates, but the majority do. The fundamental GS pay system is broken down by two main variables, grades and steps.
GS Pay Grades
GS pay grades range from GS-1 to GS-15. They set the base pay for each job, before any step increases or other adjustments (see below for examples of those). Higher grade numbers reflect higher level positions and higher pay. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the GS grade level assigned (by the employing agency) to a job position depends on a number of factors, namely the job’s degree of “difficulty, responsibility, and qualifications required.”
Education level is an important part of this grade-level classification and breakdown — included in qualifications required. As you might assume, those with just a high school diploma typically qualify only for entry-level federal positions at the lowest of GS pay grades. Contrastingly, those with a bachelor’s degree generally start at GS-5 at least. Bachelor’s degree holders can also be eligible to start at higher-level grade positions given high-level academic performance and/or previous experience.
Upper pay grades are also determined by job qualifications (education, training and experience) and responsibility level. Individuals may also be promoted to higher grades after set intervals or through merit-based promotion. Logically, the more supervisory, managerial and top-level administrative roles fall in the upper GS grades.
The GS grades specify base pay for each level, but that pay is also increased by step rates. Think of GS step-rate pay increases as raises due to set increments of time and meeting performance standards. These step-rate increases, from step 1 to step 10, occur at set intervals, depending on the step (shorter intervals for the lower steps, longer for the higher steps).
A step-rate pay increase usually represents roughly 3 percent of an employee’s GS-grade base pay. Generally, if an employee stays within a single pay grade, it would take 18 years to progress from step 1 to step 10, and would represent about a 30 percent pay increase over the span of those 18 years. This dependability in pay increase is one attractive aspect of working a federal job.
So what are the actual amounts of GS grade pay and step increases? For a complete list see the OPM’s Pay and Leave Salaries and Wages GS table. But here are annual salary examples for entry-level, mid-level and upper-level positions at step 1 and step 10:
GS-1 — Step 1: $18,785. Step 10: $23,502.
GS-7 — Step 1: $35,854. Step 10: $46,609.
GS-15 — Step 1: $105,123. Step 10: $136,659.
What Level of Pay Should I Expect as a Law Enforcement Officer?
Again, this varies greatly due to how each position is classified. But there are a number of other factors to consider in calculating potential pay, some specific to law enforcement. First and foremost is that most federal Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) are paid on the GL grade table from GL-3 to GL-10, after which positions are classified and paid under the normal GS grades GS-11 through GS-15. GL-1 and GL-2 were phased out as they were considered too low for the responsibility of an LEO job.
What is different about GL grades? In terms of actual dollar amount, GL grades are set to a higher base salary than equivalent level GS grades. They are higher partially to adjust LEO pay rates to be comparable to equivalent positions in state and local law enforcement as well as in the private sector. And, similar to state, local and private sector, federal LEO pay reflects the nature of law enforcement positions (difficulty, stress, responsibility and danger) as well as the demand for and necessity of LEOs at all levels.
For complete GL grade pay rates, see OPM’s LEO table. As an example, if you are a graduate of Lamar University’s BSCJ program and have the required prior experience in the field, you may qualify to start at a GL-7 level position. GL-7 base pay ranges from $40,634 annually at step 1 to $51,389 at step 10, roughly $5,000 more annually than equivalent GS-7 non-LEO jobs.
Are There Any Other Adjustments Made to Federal LEO Salaries?
Importantly, the GL and GS pay rates only reflect grade base pay and step increases. LEO pay can be augmented substantially by two factors: the locality pay adjustment and law enforcement availability pay.
Locality pay adjustments are automatically added to base pay depending on the cost of living and expenses where the federal LEO job is located. This can be substantial, ranging from a 14 percent increase in less expensive locales to a 35 percent increase in the most expensive areas (e.g. San Francisco).
Law enforcement availability pay helps to increase pay to reflect the extended hours that certain law enforcement jobs require. This pay increase is set to 25 percent over the base pay of the position, and is added specifically to certain special agent jobs in criminal investigation.
To take the former example of a GL-7 pay grade job for a college-educated criminal investigator, these two pay adjustments could add another 60 percent to an annual salary (in the most expensive localities). This comes out to about $65,000 for step 1 pay to $82,000 at step 10.
It is also important to note that the above numbers reflect a stagnant career in a single position and GL paygrade. Most LEOs tend to work their way up the ranks, with promotions allowing them to ascend to higher GL and GS pay grades. Clearly, federal jobs can be fairly high-paying for law enforcement professionals, especially those with degrees in criminal justice or related fields.