Federal agencies in metro Washington -- with 366,000 employes -- estimate they will cut back 3,700 jobs by midsummer. They are talking jobs, not necessarily people. That is far less than the 30,000 RIFS (reductions in force) predicted earlier by some area congressmen.

Because of the selective nature of the upcoming RIFs some long-service workers who are vets may be bounced out of their current jobs.

Layoffs -- commonplace in the private sector -- are not unknown in government. But they are rare engough in this government town that the mere mention of them causes panic among some workers.

The coming RIFs will miss most workers and some agencies will avoid them completely. Some will hire people. Others will hire and fire at the same time.

Defense Department (DoD) is considered almost RIF-proof. DoD has 89,000 workers here and the Army, Navy and Air Force all are currently hiring now.

The Legislative Branch has another 38,000 workers is congressional offices, General Accounting Office, Government Printing Office, and Library of Congress, all of whom are not on the same RIF schedule as Executive Branch agencies.

Normally during a government RIF the last hired is the first fired and veterans have more job protection than nonvets. But because of the nature of upcoming RIFs, where entire occupation groups and programs are to be eliminated, some longtime workers with veterans preference could get the ax. Their so-called competitive area -- fellow workers they can bump and displace to keep jobs -- will be narrow.

The severity of the RIFs will depend on when they are made (some will be completed by October 1981, others by October 1982), by how many of the jobs to be cut currently are filled and by the attrition rate in agencies.

Turnover in government typically runs about 1 1/2 percent (of total workforce) a month, or more. But because of the economic times and uncertainty over what Congress and the White House will do to Social Security and federal pension programs many persons eligible to retire are remaining on the federal payroll. The attrition rate in some agencies has dropped to one-half percent.

Agencies planning RIFs have to ask the Office of Personnel Management for permission to offer early retirement (age 50 with 20 years service, or at any age after 25 years service) to their employes.

OPM has rejected requests from some agencies seeking permission for a early-out policy that could cover all their workers. OPM has told the agencies to limit early-out requests to specific groups -- by occupation, program, grade level or geographic location -- where RIFs are to take place. p

A good example of that is the Census Bureau in Suitland. Early outs there are limited to specific groups of workers, grades and jobs -- not the entire bureau.

Workers who get RIF notices will automatically be put on a list of displaced employes. They are supposed to get preference for any local federal job vacanies. OPM is coordinating the program and is urging agencies to go slow in filling vacancies until the about-to-be-RIFfed have been offered jobs.

Despite big RIF estimates from Capitol Hill, data collected by OPM showed that as of Friday only 3,700 jobs so far are on the RIF target list. That number could grow. Or shrink.

But if that information is correct, the closest the typical Washington area bureaucrat will come to a RIF is when he or she reads about it in the newspaper. It's something like the odds on being hit by lightning while driving a Porsche. But that's of little comfort if you get a RIF notice, or drive a Porsche in a thunderstorm.