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Classification & Qualifications Appeal Decisions

Washington, DC

U.S. Office of Personnel Management
Classification Appeal Decision
Under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code

[appellant's name]
Cartographer
GS-1370-11
[organization]
United States Geological Survey
Department of the Interior
[city, state]
Cartographer
GS-1370-11
C-1370-11-03

Robert D. Hendler
Classification and Pay Claims
Program Manager
Agency Compliance and Evaluation
Merit System Accountability and Compliance

09/30/2014


Date

As provided in section 511.612 of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations, this decision constitutes a certificate that is mandatory and binding on all administrative, certifying, payroll, disbursing, and accounting officials of the Government.  The agency is responsible for reviewing its classification decisions for identical, similar, or related positions to ensure consistency with this decision.  There is no right of further appeal.  This decision is subject to discretionary review only under conditions and time limits specified in the Introduction to the Position Classification Standards (Introduction), appendix 4, section G (address provided in appendix 4, section H).

Decision sent to:

[appellant’s and HR office addresses]

Introduction

On March 28, 2014, OPM’s Dallas Agency Compliance and Evaluation accepted a classification appeal from [appellant].  The appellant’s position is currently classified as Cartographer, GS-1370-11, but he believes it should be classified to the GS-12 grade level.  The position is assigned to the [organization] (Center), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Department of the Interior, in [city, state].

The appellant’s official position description (PD), number [number], is standardized and covers positions Center-wide.  The OPM accepted and processed separate classification appeals from two other employees occupying identical additional PDs.  The appellant is assigned to a different section in the Center with supervisory reporting relationships different from one of the other employees.  To fully consider the complexity of the project work performed by each employee, we have processed the appeals separately.  We received the complete agency’s administrative report (AAR) on May 20, 2014, and the appellant’s comments on the AAR on June 3, 2014.  The agency subsequently forwarded comments to OPM on June 13, 2014, in response, the appellant provided additional comments on June 27, 2014.  We have accepted and decided this appeal under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.).

Background and general issues

The appellant initially attempted to resolve the classification of his position through the negotiated grievance procedures.  In May 2011, he and other Center employees filed a grievance concerning the agency not promoting the position to the GS-12 grade level.  The appellant states his PDs and Standard Form (SF) 50s identify the GS-12 grade level as the full performance level (FPL) of the position.  As indicated by the transcript provided to OPM of the January 2014 arbitration hearing between the agency and union, the arbitrator determined the employees would file a classification appeal with OPM.  The arbitrator further states:

Pending that decision, that will resolve a fact issue in this case as to whether they have, in fact, from the date this grievance was filed or through currently are performing or have performed at the GS-12 level.  And based on that, the parties have agreed if they are or have, I will order an appropriate order of back pay…

As arranged by the arbitrator, grievance proceedings will be “held in abeyance” while OPM adjudicated the classification appeal.  The appellant subsequently filed a classification appeal with OPM.

The appellant submitted PD coversheets and SF 50s identifying the FPL of his position as GS-12.  The agency explains in its AAR to OPM:

[The appellant’s FPL] like all Cartographers’ was set at the FPL of GS-12.  Since that time the [name] Center was reorganized and became [the Center].  It was determined that the FPL of GS-12 was not supportable for all Cartography work.  The employees filed a union grievance and entered into arbitration.  Management has asked HR not to make the changes in FPL until the arbitration process has been completed.

The arbitrator suggests an OPM classification appeal would consider the appropriate classification of the duties and responsibilities performed by the appellant since May 2011, i.e., the filing date of the grievance.  The appellant submitted documents describing work he performed on previous projects dating as far back as 2007.  In adjudicating this appeal, our responsibility is to make our own independent decision on the proper classification of the existing duties and responsibilities assigned by management to the appellant’s position and performed by him.

Regardless of the arbitrator’s statements to the contrary, the OPM can consider only current duties and responsibilities in classifying positions (5 U.S.C. 5112).  Established OPM guidance requires that a representative work cycle be determined for establishing what work is characteristic of the work of a position for classification evaluation.  When identifying duties to consider in classifying a position, The Classifier’s Handbook instructs:

They should be only those duties currently assigned, observable, identified with the position’s purpose and organization, and expected to continue or recur on a regular basis over a period of time, such as one year.  The period of time considered should cover the full cycle of duties performed.  This may vary from a few months for very simple clerical work to a more lengthy period for work that involves long term cases or projects.

We must focus on the more recent work performed by the appellant constituting the current work cycle within the meaning of the classification process.  For the appellant’s position, our analysis will focus on his Network Improvement Project (NIP), for which January 2012 marks the beginning of his project work.  Although the arbitrator erroneously suggests an OPM classification appeal would consider the appropriate classification of duties performed since May 2011, we note the appellant has been assigned to the same unit prior to that date and thus performing cartographic duties and responsibilities of similar type, nature, and complexity since May 2011.  We fully consider those duties under the grade determination section.

The appellant mentions performing new duties such as contributing to his unit’s Twitter feeds, in addition to posting the monthly online photo and other website-related support duties.  Only duties occupying at least 25 percent of an employee’s time can affect the grade of a position (Introduction, section III.J).  There is no evidence that performing any of the new duties occupy at least 10 hours a week, nor should they require that expenditure of time based on careful consideration of the duties required.  Moreover, because these duties are an extension of his NIP and other assigned cartographic duties, the technical demands required in the performance of such duties are fully considered and addressed under the grade determination section.

The arbitrator also suggests back pay as a remedy should it be determined the appellant is performing GS-12 grade level work.  It is well settled that employees are statutorily barred from receiving back pay for periods of misclassification (5 U.S.C. 5596(b)(3)).  See United States v. Testan, 424 U.S. 392, 400 (1976) and Erlyn D. Felder, B-202685, August 17, 1982.  Further, the U.S. Comptroller General states that an “…employee is entitled only to the salary of the position to which he is actually appointed, regardless of the duties performed.  When an employee performs the duties of a higher grade level, no entitlement to the salary of the higher grade exists until such time as the individual is actually promoted.  Consequently, back pay is not available as a remedy for misassignments to higher level duties or improper classifications” (CG decision B-232695, December 15, 1989).

The appellant indicates he performs work similar to the duties described in a PD he submitted for a GS-1370-12 cartographer assigned to the [name] Center.  However, positions which may on the surface appear similar may include significantly different duties and responsibilities that affect the classification.  The appellant states he performs project leader or manager (hereafter referred to as project leader) tasks while the GS-11 cartographer positions assigned to his project do not have the additional leader-related responsibilities.  Moreover, in his June 27, 2014, comments to OPM, he disagrees with the agency’s description of this as project “lead” work, stating the “agency reply attempts to influence by changing the title Project Manager to lead.”  Furthermore, the appellant states the previous leader for his current project was a GS-12 cartographer.  By law, we must make our own classification decisions solely by comparing the appellant’s current duties and responsibilities to OPM position classification standards (PCS) and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Comparisons to other positions that may or may not have been classified correctly and disputes concerning the leader versus manager terminology are not germane to the position classification process.  Consequently, we based this appeal decision on the current duties and responsibilities assigned by management to the appellant’s position and performed by him.

Like OPM, the appellant’s agency must classify positions based on comparison to OPM PCSs and guidelines.  The agency also has primary responsibility for ensuring that its positions are classified consistently with OPM appeal decisions.  If the appellant considers his position so similar to others that they should be classified the same, then he may pursue the matter by writing to the human resources office of his agency’s headquarters.  In doing so, he should specify the precise organizational location, classification, duties, and responsibilities of the positions in question.  If the appellant’s position is so similar to other positions that they all warrant the same classification, the agency must correct the classification of those positions to be consistent with this appeal decision.  Otherwise, the agency should explain to the appellant the differences between his position and the others.

In addition, the appellant asserts other Center cartographers have been either non-competitively promoted to the GS-12 grade level or offered advancement opportunities not presented to him.  By law (5 U.S.C. 302 and 5102(a)(3)), agency management has the right to establish positions and determine the work assignable to each position.  Also see 5 U.S.C. 7106 with regard to organizational situations under chapter 71 of title 5, U.S.C.  Such actions are not reviewable under the classification appeals process.

The appellant describes unfavorable changes to his telework agreement, the policy on credit hours, and other actions on the part of his management following the attempt to resolve the classification of his position through the negotiated grievance procedures.  Our responsibility is to make our own independent decision on the proper classification of the appellant’s position.  We must, by law, classify positions solely by comparing his current duties and responsibilities to OPM PCSs and guidelines; thus, his concerns regarding the credit hour, telework, and human resources related actions of his unit not related to the position classification process are also not germane to the position classification appeal process.

Position information

The Center supports the acquisition and management of reliable geospatial data, products, and services through geospatial technical expertise and customer service for the USGS and the country.  The Center supports The National Map (TNM) which is a collaborative effort among the USGS and other Federal, State, and local partners to improve and deliver topographic information for the country.  Use for TNM includes recreational, scientific analysis, and emergency responses.

The appellant’s cartographer position is assigned to the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD) Unit of the NHD Section.  The unit is responsible for improving data quality and content of the NHD containing lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, canals, dams, and other surface water components of TNM.  The appellant’s work includes data preparation, assessment, integration, and analysis, as well as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications support.

We discuss the appellant’s project work in greater detail under the grade determination section.  In general, though, his work entails constructing complex datasets for use in TNM and GIS applications, analyzing formats of data and determining the most efficient methodology required for integrating data in TNM.  He collects, converts, and assures the quality of geospatial data.  The appellant’s first-level supervisor is the Unit Supervisor (a GS-1370-12 cartographer) and second-level supervisor is the Section Chief (a GS-1370-13 cartographer).

The appellant and second-level supervisor certified to the accuracy of his official standardized PD.  A position represents the duties and responsibilities that make up the work performed by an employee.  Those duties and responsibilities are customarily documented in a PD so the employee, supervisors, and other parties will know what essential features comprise the position.  Major duties are normally those occupying a significant portion of the employee’s time and should be only those duties currently assigned, observable, identified with the position’s purpose and organization, and expected to continue to recur on a regular basis over a period of time.  The appellant’s official PD is a standardized PD intended to cover multiple cartographer positions at the GS-11 level.  Standardized PDs typically use a broad description that does not provide the specificity that would be found in a PD developed for a single position.  Position classification appeal regulations permit OPM to investigate or audit a position and decide an appeal on the basis of the duties and responsibilities assigned by management and performed by the employee.  Because an OPM appeal decision classifies a real operating position and not simply the work depicted in a PD, this decision is based on the actual work assigned to and performed by the employee.

We find the PD of record contains the major duties assigned to and performed by the appellant, and we incorporate it by reference into this decision.  Though certifying to the accuracy of the PD, the second-level supervisor asserts the appellant does not perform two of the 11 major duties listed in the PD.  To ensure only duties assigned to and performed by an incumbent are considered for classification purposes, the PD should be amended or include an accompanying correction notice to document the discrepancies between duties actually assigned and performed from duties listed in the standardized PD.

We conducted a telephone audit with the appellant on September 4, 2014, and a telephone interview with his immediate supervisor on September 10, 2014.  In reaching our classification decision, we carefully considered all of the information obtained from those interviews as well as written information provided by the appellant and his agency, including his official PD.

Series, title, and standard determination

The agency assigned the appellant’s position to the GS-1370 Cartographer Series, titled it Cartographer, and used the Job Family Position Classification Standard (JFS) for Professional Work in the Physical Science Group, GS-1300, to determine the grade of his position.  The appellant does not disagree and, after careful review of the record, we concur.

Grade determination

The GS-1300 JFS describes, in a narrative format, grade-level criteria for evaluating non-supervisory positions from GS-5 through GS-15 and includes appropriate language from the law, supplemented by more specific material, and illustrations of work appropriate to each grade level.  Positions are graded as a whole against the criteria found at differing grades in the standard and are then classified to the grade that best represents the overall demands of the work.

At the GS-11 level, the law describes positions performing, with wide latitude for the exercise of independent judgment, responsible work of considerable difficulty requiring somewhat extended professional, scientific, or technical training and experience which has demonstrated important attainments and marked capacity for independent work.

At the GS-11 level, the JFS describes scientists that plan and execute complex studies usually involving intensive investigations into one or more recognized phenomena.  The work typically involves conventional methods and techniques, though going beyond clear precedents, and requires adapting methods to the problems at hand and interpreting findings in terms of their scientific significance.  Finished products are reviewed for adequacy of conclusions and soundness of the procedures and methods used.  Assignments at this level generally do not involve radical departures from past practices or require the development of new, novel, or innovative approaches, methods, or techniques.  At the GS-11 level, scientists have wide latitude for exercising independent judgment in performing work of considerable difficulty requiring somewhat extended professional, scientific, or technical training and experience which has demonstrated important attainments and marked capacity for sound independent action or decision.

At the GS-12 level, the law describes positions performing, under general administrative supervision and with wide latitude for the exercise of independent judgment, professional, scientific, or technical work of marked difficulty and responsibility requiring extended professional, scientific, or technical training and experience which has demonstrated leadership and attainment of a high order in professional, scientific, or technical research, practice, or administration.

At the GS-12 level, the JFS describes positions that typically involve planning, executing, and reporting on original studies or ongoing studies requiring a fresh approach to resolve new problems.  The complexity of assignments requires extensive modification and adaptation of standard procedures, etc., and development of totally new methods and techniques to address problems for which guidelines or precedents are not substantially applicable.  Assignments typically include considerable breadth, diversity, and intensity; varied, complex features; and novel or obscure problems.  Completed work is reviewed primarily for general acceptability and feasibility, and scientific recommendations are normally accepted as sound without close review unless matters of policy or program resources are involved.

The appellant’s position meets the GS-11 level.  As at this level, he exercises independent judgment in performing cartographic work of considerable difficulty.  For example, he plans and executes the complex projects of his unit associated with the collection and maintenance of data comprising the NHD, one of the eight data layers of TNM.  The NHD is divided into 22 regions, 223 sub-regions within the 22 regions, and 2,263 sub-basins within the 223 sub-regions.  The supervisor assigns projects to the appellant, providing general instructions to include identifying the objectives and parameters of the task assigned.  The appellant serves as the lead for the NIP, a joint effort between the USGS and the Environmental Protection Agency.  The purpose of the NIP is to improve the data quality of the NHD in preparation for the attachment of Value Added Attributes (VAA).  The VAA will enhance the NHD by attaching unique features such as water flow, fish counts, salinity, volume, and temperature within water sources.  To prepare the NHD for the VAA enhancements, the data must undergo and pass 32 quality “checks” and the errors identified by the checks must be corrected.  To that end, the NIP charter established the following objectives:  analyze the NHD flow network for errors, identify the location of the errors, determine the action to be taken on the errors, take action to correct errors, perform quality assurance to check and measure actions, create metadata documenting actions, and provide the corrected data for update to the NHD.  As project lead, the appellant plans and assigns work to the unit staff (hereafter referred to as editors) assigned to assist him with the project.

The appellant’s editor work involves checking out the appropriate hydrography dataset for the sub-basin he is working from the NHD stewardship website.  He operates various applications of the ArcGIS (i.e., the agency’s off-the-shelf GIS for working with maps and geographic information) in addition to a custom NHD GeoEdit Tool, developed by staff in a different section of the Center, containing edit and automated quality check functions.  The Tool identifies and checks for, among other things, where hydrography feature names must be in harmony with naming conventions, that outflow and inflow connections are correct, disconnects in the high resolution NHD network, logical connections not made, enclosed basins, isolated network of flow lines with no logical connections, and necessary edits to resolve network connection errors.  The appellant reviews errors reported by the Tool; when necessary, he uses the Tool’s edit functions to correct errors by adding or editing features of the NHD.  He also initiates quality control checks built into the Tool against the NHD, performing additional checks as necessary prior to submitting to the supervisor for final quality check and approval.  The appellant’s work follows the unit’s internal policies, instructions, and workflow.

The relevant illustration included in the JFS at the GS-11 level follows:

Performs one or more cartographic duties such as source assessment, geopositioning, data extraction and capture, and product generation.  Typical activities at this level include identifying and evaluating data sources for applicability and quality; operating stereoscopic instruments to perform automated and interactive point selection; extracting digital terrain data; editing and symbolizing content to produce a specific graphic product according to product specifications; and coordinating the day-to-day production processes for both digital and graphic geospatial output according to specifications for assigned projects.  Solves a variety of cartographic problems, adapts precedents or makes significant departures from previous approaches to similar projects to accommodate specialized requirements of some projects.  Exercises initiative and originality in solving problems relating to complex map finishing, revisions, automated cartography, and digital data.  Tests and evaluates new or modified cartographic instruments, techniques, methods, or practices.  Applies standard practices of other scientific disciplines as they relate to cartography.

Similarly, the appellant performs data extraction and capture duties and tasks associated with the collection, conversion, and conduct of quality assurance of geospatial data for the NHD.  He and the NIP editors run quality checks for the 22 regions, fixing all required errors for the 2,263 sub-basins comprising the NHD.  Because unit staff outside of the NIP team may work on and change hydrography datasets, the data that had already completed the battery of NIP-required quality checks can subsequently be corrupted.  As a result, the appellant launched the double check phase where the sub-region data goes through the quality checks again for the purpose of finding and fixing the additional errors.  As at the GS-11 level, he exercises initiative and originality when resolving the variety of cartographic problems he encounters as project lead, for example, determining which edits, double checks, and sometimes triple checks to initiate.  The supervisor serves as the final level of quality assurance for data loaded into the NHD.  Once work is completed, the supervisor may conduct a quality check but will typically review the appellant’s work to ensure overall requirements are met and general instructions are followed.  This type of review is consistent with the GS-11 level JFS and illustration where work is reviewed for adequacy and soundness of procedures and methods used.

The appellant’s position does not meet the GS-12 level.  As project lead, his work entails overseeing day-to-day production, dispersing work to editors, and tracking production status of the NIP.  He tracks the status of project work and provides spreadsheets, charts, and written reports to update his supervisor and others on the NIP’s status.  He also serves as the point-of-contact for any project-related questions or issues.  Unlike the GS-12 level, this and other assignments do not involve original or ongoing studies requiring a fresh approach to resolve new problems.  The appellant’s assignments involve the preparation, integration, output, and dissemination of geospatial data.  Though his work requires determining the course of action necessary to complete projects in addition to using ArcGIS and the custom Tool to edit or create data in the NHD, the work does not require extensive modification and adaptation of standard procedures and development of totally new methods and techniques to perform his work as described at the GS-12 level.  In addition, the appellant’s assignments do not involve the considerable breadth, diversity, and intensity; varied, complex features; and novel or obscure problems expected at the GS-12 level.  In contrast, the purpose of his work is to update and maintain the currency of NHD information for the purpose of making VAA enhancements.  The appellant’s work affects the timeliness, accuracy, reliability, and acceptability of geospatial data and the output generated from them.  The decisions and recommendations he makes normally involve the workflow order and efficiency of his project.  The appellant’s supervisor has final approval for work products and decision-making authority for changes to the project beyond the day-to-day workflow process.  Though his supervisor assesses his work for general acceptability and feasibility, the appellant’s completed work does not involve making scientific, as opposed to workflow improvement, recommendations as expected at the GS-12 level.

The relevant illustration included in the JFS at the GS-12 level follows:

Develops and monitors the production of geospatial data to support agency geographic information systems and hardcopy map generation for a staff unit.  Work on inter- and intra-agency committees to develop and/or revise Federal standards for geospatial data.  Revises agency cartographic standards and specifications.  Provides staff advisory, consulting, and reviewing services.  Applies standard cartographic practices to new situations and solves novel or obscure problems.  Exercises initiative and originality in the solution of cartographic problems.  Serves as a technical authority on all aspects of cartography.

The appellant disseminates work and provides technical advice to the editors assigned to assist with his project.  As the lead, he developed a standard operating procedure (SOP) to assist team members with completing quality checks and correcting errors.  The SOP provides a practical step-by-step guide to describe the various checks and potential errors to be found at each of the 32 quality checks.  He also developed spreadsheets organized by the 22 regions to track the progress of completion of the sub-basins throughout the initial and double-check phases of the NIP.  Each team member is responsible for updating the spreadsheet to include the job number and the number and types of errors found.  After being notified regarding work completion, the appellant assigns a new work area to the editor and updates the spreadsheet.  He also contributes articles to the NHD newsletter describing project status, tasks, or other highlights, and he makes presentations on the NIP to USGS management and partners.  This and other work, however, are not comparable to the more demanding staff advisory and consulting services found at the GS-12 level.  Instead, his work matches the GS-11 illustration describing cartographers coordinating the day-to-day production processes for assigned projects, adapting precedents to accommodate specialized project requirements, and exercising initiative and originality to solve problems related to automated cartography.  In contrast to the illustration at the GS-12 level, the appellant does not work on inter- and intra-agency committees to develop and/or revise Federal standards for geospatial data nor does he revise agency cartographic standards and specifications.  Also unlike the illustration at the GS-12 level, he does not exercise initiative and originality to solve cartographic problems.  Instead, the problems or issues he resolves involve the identification of appropriate corrective action for errors detected by the quality checks, glitches with the operation of ArcGIS and the Tool, and other complications representative of the appellant’s day-to-day production work rather than being characteristic of novel or obscure problems as described at the GS-12 level.

Decision

The appellant’s position is properly classified as Cartographer, GS-1370-11.

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