Health, Education and Welfare's 3-year search for overpaid, underworked employes has found only 3,800 of more than 100,000 jobs audited carry more rank and pay than deserved.

The findings of a misclassification rate below 4 percent are significant for nearly everyone in the federal establishment. Major revelations of overgrading in HEW, which spends more money than the Defense Department, could have triggered massive search-and-demote operations in other departments.

Next to the District of Columbia Government and Congressional-related agencies, HEW with nearly 40,000 workers here is the largest employer in metro Washington.

In addition to overgrading, HEW's study showed that about 1,700 positions were undergraded with employes being paid less than they should. Nearly all of the undergradings have been corrected, officials say. Most of the downgradings uncovered by the study will not begin until early next year.

Earlier studies by teams from the General Accounting Office, the then Civil Service Commission and HEW units had indicated a potentially massive overgrading problem in the giant department. Those studies -- usually small samples centered on known "trouble spots" in HEW and other agencies -- showed as many as two of every 10 government employes might be overgraded, and overpaid.

Department-wide desk audits are being completed right now. Workers in some HEW agencies like NIH are now being checked to see if their duties and pay match their federal job descriptions.

HEW officials anticipate that relatively few workers will be downgraded as a result of the study.

Under the new Civil Service Reform Act, federal workers whose jobs are overgraded through no fault of their own are entitled to have their grades "saved" for two years. During that time they may be placed in properly graded jobs and continue to get regular longevity pay increases and regular annual pay raises such as the 7 percent due next month.

If at the end of two years the employe still is in his or her job, it will be downgraded. But the employe will not lose pay. Rather, the law guarantees workers involved in no-fault demotions one-half of the regular annual federal pay raise for other employes until their salary equals the top step for their new, lower grade.

HEW officials are convinced that the study of overgrading and undergrading is accurate. Classification and personnel experts who made the studies are themselves audited -- by higher up HEW brass and investigators from the Office of Personnel Management -- to make sure that the people doing the classifying are themselves properly graded.

Employes hit by no-fault downgradings in HEW and other agencies will be offered first crack at nearby (commuting area) jobs at the proper grade. Those who refuse to take them will be candidates for downgrading, with saved pay and saved grade protection as provided by law.

The HEW survey results, if Congress and the White House buy them, should calm the jitters of thousands of federal workers who feared a massive "witch hunt" that could cause them to be downgraded.

By law each federal job is supposed to be checked each year to insure that it is properly graded and workers paid at the correct rate. But government officials admit that enforcement in past often has been lax, leading to the belief there was widespread overgrading.

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