SLs and STs – Highly Important Senior Professional Employees

When most people talk about top ranking federal career employees they refer to members of the Senior Executive Service (SES). However, there is an important and growing cadre of career Senior Professional employees occupying Senior Level and Professional and Scientific positions – otherwise known as SLs and STs – who play very important roles in supporting critical agency missions across the government. Given the growing interest in and number of these positions across the federal sector, I am focusing this column on SLs and STs, many of whom are SEA members.

SL and ST position designations were established in 1990 in connection with the abolishment of the few remaining "Supergrade" (GS-16,17, and 18) jobs left over after the Civil Service Reform Act ushered in the SES personnel system. As defined in government-wide regulations, SL and ST jobs are now collectively referred to as "Senior Professionals" (or SP).

SP Job Classification: Most SL employees are in non-managerial positions whose duties are broad and complex enough to be classified above GS- 15. However, in a few agencies that are statutorily exempt from inclusion in the SES, executive positions are staffed with SL employees. The exemption from the SES covers government corporations and a few other small agencies such as the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the Export-Import Bank, and the Federal Election Commission.

ST positions cover non-executive positions classified above the GS-15 level, and involve performance of high-level research and developmental work in the physical, biological, medical, or engineering sciences, or a closely-related field. Many of the federal government's most renowned scientists and engineers serve in ST positions.

Per OPM guidelines, SP positions may include some supervisory and related managerial duties, provided that these duties occupy less than 25 percent of the incumbent's time. Positions in which supervisory and managerial work constitutes 25 percent or more of the incumbent's time almost always meet the criteria for the SES.

SP Allocations and Job Growth: Agencies must be granted an SL/ST position allocation from OPM before filling an SL/ST position. Per OPM, there are currently about 640 SL and 470 ST positions allocated to numerous government agencies. Among departments with the largest SP employee populations are DoD, NASA, Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Justice. In keeping with the growth in importance of SP positions, the number of employees occupying SP jobs increased from 1,052 in 2009 to 1,148 by the end of 2013.

Filling SP Jobs: SL positions are typically established in the competitive service and involve a merit based hiring process. A career SES employee, however, may be appointed to an SL position noncompetitively if he or she is qualified for the job. ST positions are also in the competitive civil service; however, by law appointments may be made to ST positions without going through a competitive hiring process. Thus, qualified applicants for ST positions can often be hired more quickly than applicants for other federal jobs.

Performance Awards: In terms of performance awards, there are key differences between SP and SES employees. Unlike SES employees, SP performance awards do not have to equal 5% or more of an employee's salary. An SP employee who receives a performance rating at the fully successful level or better may be granted a cash award of up to $25,000, but not in excess of $10,000 without the approval of OPM. (The Department of Defense is authorized to give awards up to $25,000 without OPM approval.)

SEA's Role in Enhancing the SP Workforce: SEA has played an important role, throughout many years, in convincing Congress and prior Administrations, to elevate the status and benefits associated with serving in SP positions in an effort to make them more attractive and equivalent to the SES. Some key milestones in SEA's successful efforts to elevate Senior Professional positions include:

Obtaining the Right to be Nominated for Presidential Rank Awards: Prior to 2001, SL/STs were not eligible to be considered for the Presidential Rank Awards. SEA proposed legislation to amend the law, which was passed in 2001 and went into effect in 2003. SL/STs have since been eligible to be considered for these awards in the same manner as members of the SES.

Lifting the Leave Accrual and Accumulation Caps: The 2008 Defense Authorization Act contained a provision offered by SEA that lifted the SL/ST Annual Leave Cap to the same level as that for the SES. As a result, SL/STs can accumulate up to 720 hours of leave each year. Another provision pushed by SEA allows SL/STs, regardless of tenure, to accrue 8 hours of annual leave per bi-weekly pay period – the same as for the SES.

Lifting the Pay Cap: In 2008, SEA was successful in working with Congress to pass legislation to lift the SL/ST pay cap. The pay cap for SL/STs is now (as it is for SES) at Executive Level II for a certified agency, up from Level III of the Executive Schedule.

For more information on policies pertaining to SP positions, including regulations governing SP pay recently issued by OPM, readers may visit OPM's website at

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