Federal agencies ordered to make any back-pay settlement to workers may soon be forced to pick up the employes' attorneys' fees as well.

Proposed new regulations from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) would require government agencies that lose back pay cases to pay, for the first time, "reasonable attorneys' fees" if such payment is deemed "in the interest of justice." More on that later.

Many federal workers win back-pay cases from their agencies, resulting from illegal or improper demotions, dismissals or any other pay-denial action. But it is up to them, generally, to pay their lawyers. And those attorneys, fees are frequently double or triple the actual amount of money the employe gets in back pay.

(Recently, a federal aide here won a discrimination case against her agency. She was ordered restored to her old job, with approxiamtely $30,000 in back pay. However, her attorneys, fees amounted to $160,000. The government is appealing the amount of the attorneys, fee.)

Under proposed OPM regulations, a court or other "appropriate authority" could order the government to pay all or part of the attorneys' fees. Those "appropriate authorities" as set forth in the Civil Service Reform Act are: A court, the General Accounting Office, the OPM, Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Labor Relations Authority, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a foreign service grievance board, D.C. Government grievance board, an arbitrator in a binding arbitration case or the head of the agency where the employe works.

The payment of attorneys' fees in back pay cases was part of the CS Reform Act. OPM's regulations, if adopted, would put that into effect. The proposed regulations have been sent to federal agencies, unions and other interested parties for comment. They are due back April 1. The new system could go into effect by mid-summer.