What new Federal employees need to know before their first day
I have compiled this guide to assist new civil servants of the United States Government with negotiating their job offer in preparation for their first day as a Federal employee.
I joined the federal government under the competitive service as a General Schedule (GS) employee in 2019 without previous Federal government or military experience. My main motivation in preparing this guide is to pass along what I learned, in part because the time between the tentative job offer, final job offer, and onboarding can be stressful and uncertain. The process usually moves slowly so patience and flexibility are most important, as hard as that is.
If you encountered a situation not addressed here, please contact me so that I can add additional advice for new hires, drawing from our collective experiences. There are many different hiring circumstances and I am not in human resources, so I make no guarantees about the options available to you, which may be broader or narrower than described here.
Review the vacancy announcement you applied to
The vacancy announcement from USAJOBS can establish the options for work location, potential salary negotiations, and hiring incentives. For example, the vacancy announcement will have a salary range that may include several localities and should also indicate whether an applicant is eligible to receive relocation expenses or a recruitment incentive. If you are uncertain about your options, it never hurts to ask the human resources specialist handling your hiring.
Talk to your future supervisor
Your future supervisor can be a major help in the wait between the job offer and onboarding date, which can be several months unfortunately, depending on the nature of the background investigations needed.
Though he/she may not be able to accelerate the process, your supervisor should be able to provide insight into policies related to new hires that are specific to the agency you are entering. A brief discussion also provides an opportunity to discuss any uncertainties that you may have about the position and the nature of the work. I also encourage you to reach out to anyone you may know who works in your operating unit or has previously dealt with your future supervisor or colleagues to make sure you are a “good fit”.
Due to the limited range for negotiating salary, I asked, “Is there anything else I should be negotiating?” before accepting the job offer. Keep in mind that because the hiring process is time consuming for your supervisor, he/she will most likely do what is reasonably possible to complete the hiring process with you. There are time limits that require the agency to open the position for applicants again if a candidate is not selected on schedule.
For General Schedule (GS) employees, the pay range is established according to the grade of the position you applied for, and the grade that you qualified for based on your application (for vacancy announcements that provide a grade ladder for the same position to full performance).
New hires may be able to enter the Federal government with a 6-10% pay increase (two steps) over their current salary when adjusted for locality, unless that salary would exceed the maximum listed in the vacancy announcement (for the duty location). Be prepared to provide documentation.
If you are relocating to a different metropolitan area from where you live/work currently, your current salary will first be adjusted higher or lower depending on the difference in locality pay. To do this adjustment, find the step closest to your current salary for the grade of your prospective Federal position (or the grade that you qualify for) on the GS table for the location you currently live, then refer to the same grade and step on the GS table for your Federal duty location and move two steps to the right.
An additional step (3-5%) is possible for exemplary performance or, for example, to offset moving expenses if there is not a recruitment incentive or moving expenses included in the vacancy announcement. This is not guaranteed and may depend on factors specific to the agency and position.
For announcements with grades of varying performance levels, it is more difficult to negotiate a higher grade because that usually depends on a questionnaire submitted at the time of application. However, if you believe you are qualified at a higher grade than offered, ask your human resources specialist why. You will generally have to demonstrate your qualification for a higher grade based on the resume and documentation (transcripts, etc.) submitted with your application and not new documents.
New employees should be mindful of the difference between grade increases and step increases and the timeline for pay raises. For employees starting in the first three steps of a grade, eligibility for a step increase (3-5%) occurs after a year. For employees starting at the fourth step or higher, step increases will only come every two or, eventually, three years.
A grade adjustment is more substantial than a step adjustment, but it is not applicable to all positions. For positions with multiple performance levels (grades), a new hire starting at a grade other than full performance can advance to the next grade in as little as one year depending on the qualifications.
An across-the-board pay and/or locality raise usually takes effect in the first pay period completely in the new year, if the President or Congress grants one.
Negotiate creditable service for an added leave benefit
Federal employees earn several hours of vacation leave, also known as annual leave, every pay period. For new employees, this is normally four hours of leave per pay period. For Federal employees in the United States (non-foreign areas, except senior executives) with at least three years of experience, six hours of leave are earned per pay period, and for 15 years of experience, eight hours are earned. This length of service to the U.S. Government is called creditable service for leave and the start date of creditable service for leave (not retirement) can be set to a date prior to the report date for your new Federal position.
It is possible to request years of credit for non-Federal work experience if “essential to the new position” and relates “to the duties of the position to which [you are] being appointed”. This would allow you to earn, for example, up to 20 days of leave per year immediately. Once you have started your new position as a Federal employee, it is not possible to negotiate creditable service of leave to accelerate your leave-earning schedule, however, except when in error due to previous Federal or military service.
Start on the first Sunday of a pay period – if you can
The effective date of your appointment to the civil service is different than your report date. You can find this date in your final job offer letter. In most cases, an employee with an effective date on a Sunday will still onboard (report for the first time) on the following Monday (i.e., the next regular workday). Starting on a Sunday allows GS employees to qualify for their next step increase one pay period faster (increasing annual earnings enough for a modest night out). If the first Monday of the pay period is a holiday (e.g., Labor Day), asking for an effective date on Sunday will ensure you are paid for that holiday as well.
Many new Federal employees have an effective date on a Monday, perhaps because it doesn’t seem practical to ask for an effective date on a Sunday. This is at the discretion of the agency and your supervisor, but many supervisors are also unaware that they can select Sunday as an effective date for new hires. If you are promoted to a new position as a Federal employee, your start day will likely be Sunday.
Understand possibilities for remote work
Many job vacancies list that a position is telework eligible, but employees’ and supervisors’ expectations for the nature and frequency of that type of work may not align. The nature of telework may also be changing in the post-pandemic workforce. A new employee should discuss expectations for telework before the first day of work. Good questions to ask are:
Can I telework routinely or only situationally?
Do all employees in our operating unit follow the same schedule, and, if so, what is it?
How flexible is my individual telework schedule?
Review your final job offer to make sure it is consistent with your discussions and expectations
Confirm that the starting salary (grade and step), position classification, and duty location are correct. If there are errors, or you believe something may be incorrect, let the human resources specialist handling your hiring know before onboarding. Do not assume that it can be changed after you start.
Plan to stay at least three to five years
For most positions covered under the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS), the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) vesting period is three years to retain the Automatic 1% Contribution. Contribute to your TSP at least enough to receive the full match from the first day. You must have five years of creditable service (with the Federal government) to be eligible to receive an annuity from FERS.
Complete your paperwork ahead of onboarding
An application for health insurance under the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program should be filed on your first day or there may be a delay in coverage. Since Federal employees have numerous plans to select from, spend time reviewing your options in terms of costs and benefits based on your circumstances. You will have an option to change your plan near the end of the calendar year.