Thousands of federal workers due to take grade and (eventual) pay cuts would get a possible 1-to-3-year stay of execution under a plan being considered by the Civil Service Commission.

CSC already has granted Health, Education and Welfare permission to suspend all downgrading actions until Dec. 31, 1979. The idea behind the unprecedented total freeze on demotion is to permit HEW to proceed with massive reorganization plans without the internal turmoil that reorganization always brings to an agency's grade structure and workers.

The CSC action is significant because HEW estimates that as many as 26,000 of its employees could be adversely affected over the next three years either by reorganization or as a result of audits to determine whether employees are being paid and graded too high - or too low - for the work they are doing.

Most of the government's major personnel directors met at CSC headquarters last week. They discussed impending reorganizations (and the chaos expected to accompany them) and the problems of massive downgrading stemming from tough new job audits.

Some congressional sources indicate that as many as three of every 10 white-collar federal jobs are overgraded and the people in them overpaid. During the campaign, Jimmy Carter took frequent pot shots at "grade creep" in government and the military. He said self-inflation of jobs and empire-building were costing tax-payers millions.

Since taking office, however, Carter has tried to win the support of the career bureaucracy to make his reorganization plans work. He has repeatedly promised that nobody in government would get hurt - fired, or demoted - because of his reorganization.

Because of civil service rules, bumping rights and streamlining usually touted by reorganizers, that promise currently can't be kept unless agencies get permission to suspend demotions and avoid job "bumping" and the like. It looks as if CSC is about to do that, making it possible for Carter to keep his "nobody-gets-hurt" pledge.

A bill put before the House by Rep. Robert N.C. Nix (D-Pa.), would provide lifetime job and grade protection for federal workers hit by "no-fault" demotions. Incumbents would not be touched as long as they occupied the same job, but once they left, their jobs could be downgraded.

CSC next week is expected to propose legislation that would provide similar job protection - but with a time limit - to cover reorganization-related downgradings and demotions.

In the meantime, agencies want to proceed with reorganizations. Hence the CSC study on how to stretch existing rules which allow agencies to delay downgrading in special cases.

One faction in government wants all other government agencies to get the same 3-year, no-demotion coverage given HEW. Another group of personnel people think the program should be more flexible, and that CSC should be selective about the time limits for freezing demotion actions, and selective about who gets authority to delay the downgradings. The decision will be made soon.