The U.S. government has an estimated 130,000 to 240,000 problem drinkers, or outright alcoholics, on the payroll. That is a lot.

But there is no reason to believe that Uncle Sam is any worse off than any firm in the private sector.

Uncle Sam's problem is different, however, because we all are required to help support the government, and because its employee drinking problem is the nation's largest simply because it is the nation's largest employer.

Federal agencies estimate that they (and we) lose anywhere from $300 million to $500 million a year because of drinking-related time lost, production delays, accidents and insurance claims.

In the early 1970s, the government beefed up its program aimed at identifying and helping workers with drinking problems. Later, drug abuse was added to the occupational health programs, although alcohol-related problems still rank first.

Those programs were aimed at workers whose on-the-job performance is affected by a drinking problem. The idea, in a nutshell, is to spot the worker tell him or her there is a problem and guide the drinker to medical programs that will help. Agencies report a very high success ratio (50 per cent to 70 per cent is the estimate), and while that sounds good, it appears that Uncle Sam has a long way to go.

(For example in fiscal 1975 all federal agencies reported that they identified a total of 6,173 employees with drinking problems and that they "helped" 71.7 per cent "back into the work environment" - that is, out of a total of nearly 2.3 million employees, of whom the estimated 130,000 to 240,000 have a problem.)

Yesterday the General Accounting Office released report on federal alcohol abuse programs that it developed for Congress. In a nutshell, GAO says the taxpayers are still losing money because agencies aren't reaching enough employees who need help.

Among the major problems cited in the GAO reports is the fact that many agency managers and supervisiors either don't take the program seriously, or underestimate the extent of alcohol abuse on their staff.

For example, GAO said that at one Navy installation, top management officials estimated that no more than 3 per cent of the work force had a drinking problem. Alcohol abuse program heads said the figyre was between 5 and 15 per cent.

At a midwestern Army base, GAO investigators said, one commanding officer said there was no drinking problem because the civilian work force in middle America is "composed of hard-working people who are not under the same pressure as people in dense population areas."

Another official commented that his concern was "with production, not drunks."

The GAO report may or may not be translated into new legislation and programs but it is certain to result in increased awareness in agencies of employee work habits, with particular emphasis on people who consistently miss work on Friday or Monday, apparently because of drinking problems.