What Is Federal Locality Pay?

Where you work makes a difference in federal law enforcement jobs

U.S. Border Patrol agent Jerry Conlin peer through the U.S.-Mexico border fence

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When it comes to salaries for federal jobs in the U.S.—including federal law enforcement jobs—where you work matters almost as much as the work you do and the department you work for. The federal pay system is large and complex, with several different ways federal workers can earn more than their base rate of pay. One such way the locality pay system, which provides salary additives based on where employees work. For example, a special agent at step 1 of grade 10 on the federal pay scale in Atlanta, Georgia, would earn $59,571 in 2019, but an agent at the same level would earn $62,818 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Typically, when federal agencies hire new officers, they send them to the areas they need them most for their first assignments. It's relatively unlikely you would get your choice of duty assignments as a new officer. With that in mind, locality pay is good to know about, but shouldn't be a major factor in deciding whether or not to apply for a federal law enforcement job.

Why It Exists

Different areas of the country have different costs of living, so it costs more to live in some areas than it does in others. Additionally, industries may offer different pay and compensation packages in different parts of the country. Law enforcement and other criminal justice careers are particularly susceptible to variations in salaries due to the diversity of tax bases and tax rates across the country.

While money isn't the only thing in a job, it's a pretty important factor in recruiting and keeping the most qualified candidates. The Federal Salary Council—made up partially of union representatives—insists that federal workers earn about 35% less than what they could in comparable private-sector jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, on the other hand, suggests private and federal salaries are comparable. Nonetheless, the federal government has recognized the value in maintaining a competitive wage.

Locality pay is offered so that agents, officers, and other federal workers don't look elsewhere for higher-paying jobs in their assigned geographical areas.

Because federal workers often are more transient than others and can be assigned anywhere in the country or, in some cases, the world, locality pay helps ensure that workers are better able to afford to live in the areas where they are stationed.

How It Is Calculated

The Federal Salary Council makes recommendations on federal pay using data from the Occupational Employment Statistics program, collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to compare salaries in 33 metropolitan areas and a 34th category representing the rest of the United States.

According to the 2019 pay rates, the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland region offers the highest pay. An agent there at grade 10 on the scale would earn from $68,734 for step 1 to $89,348 for step 10. By comparison, the base pay for the same grade ranges from $48,973 to $63,661.

The council, established by the president, consists of nine members. Three seats are for experts in labor relations and pay policies, and six seats are for representative of federal employees.