The government is moving toward a form of "decriminalization" of past errors that have resulted in the overgrading and overpaying of some federal workers. The idea is to create a climate that will permit federal agencies to bring jobs into line with pay scales over the next couple of years without taking a meat-ax to worker rolls.

Federal agencies are required by law to make periodic job audits to see if employees are being rated and paid at the proper level. When a job is found to be overgraded, the worker is supposed to be demoted, even though the error was not the employee's.

Most classifications mistakes are on the overgrading side. When agencies move to correct them they have to demote the employee to the "proper" grade, and workers generally get to keep their current pay for only two years. After that, they are paid at the new, lower pay grade. It is a tough decision to make. Since the employees are often blameless, and stunned by the process, it is often found easier to ignore the problem or sometimes make cosmetic changes to keep the grade and pay up. That doesn't solve the problems of overgrading.

Now, however, federal agencies are under the gun from the White House and Congress to get their grades and pay levels in order. Also, impending reorganizations are certain to mean additional downgradings as employees jobs are abolished, changed around or senior workers "bump" down through the system when shakeups are taking place.

To minimize the impact of no-fault demotions, and to take the sting out of the process, the Civil Service Commission is prepared to grant agencies delays on demotions until Dec. 31 1979. That doesn't mean agencies can simply stop demoting people, but it does mean that they can apply for permission to delay the actions, and the CSC (as it already has done for HEW and HUD) will listen to them.

This authority to delay demotions means several things:

1) There probably will not be many no-fault demotions this year or next if agencies seek and get authority to defer them.

2) Agencies may decide to proceed with more vigor to root out overgraded jobs, knowing that the incumbents won't be knocked for a financial loss imediately.

3) By the time the freeze on demotions expires, Congress and the White House should have agreed on legal safeguards that will grant greater grade or pay protection to incumbents hit by no-fault demotion actions.

Some critics will review this as a bureaucratic exercise in sweeping a serious problem - overgrading - under the rug. But in practical, human terms (and the government has 2.6 million husbnads, mothers and other breadwinners) it makes sense, and makes it possible for rather complete improvements to be made with the minimum of breakage.