Federal workers who think they have been subjected to clearly excessive punishment -- firing or suspension -- for misconduct, poor performance or similar reasons may now ask for a lighter sentence from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The MSPB has decided that it inherited the authority of the old Civil Service Commission to water down or reduce penalties imposed on federal workers by their agencies. MSPB was created in 1979 by the Civil Service Commission to water down or reduce penalties imposed on federal workers by their agencies. MSPB was created in 1979 by the Civil Service Reform Act. The quasi-judicial regulatory agency hears employe appeals concerning adverse actions, ranging from dismissal to disallowance of disability retirement. On Monday the three-member board decided it will henceforth hear complaints from employes who do not necessarily deny charges against them, but who think the penalties imposed on them were clearly excessive.

Board officials said they will not substitute their discretion for that of an agency in disciplining an employe, "where that action appears to be reasonable." But in cases where the board decides that the agency came down too hard on a worker -- that is, where the penalty is "clearly excessive, disproportionate to the sustained charges or arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable" -- it may lessen the penalty. An example might be where an employe was fired for frequently being late to work. The employe would not deny the charges, but could go to the MSPB on grounds that dismissal was an excessive punishment.

Until now the MSPB had only two courses in most appeal cases. It could either uphold the agency action -- which it does in 75 percent of its decisions -- or it could overturn the agency. It did not rule on the rightness of the penalty itself. Now it will. About 40 such cases are pending before the board.

Last year the board handled more than 3,000 so-called adverse action appeals (mostly contested firings or suspensions), about 75 cases of employes denied longevity raises for unsatisfactory performance, 727 reduction-in-force cases and 1,069 appeals from workers who were denied disability retirement, plus 1,721 so-called mixed cases, involving a variety of disciplinary actions.

The new authority that the board has taken, as the successor to the Civil Service Commission, is certain to increase its business. Many workers involved in disciplinary situations realize they deserve some punishment, or feel the case against them (just or not) is too strong. But they may now appeal what they consider overly harsh punishments and the board will hear those cases.