Hard times for the bureaucracy -- layoffs, pay caps, big changes in fringe benefits, budget cuts -- are proving to be a blessing for businesses that specialize in informing and/or protecting federal workers and retirees.

Many government unions have noticed a spurt in membership in recent months as heretofore uninterested workers sign up for information and legal protections that unions offer in varying degrees.

Talk of merging the civil service retirement system with Social Security, and plans to eliminate one of the two yearly COL (cost of living) raises for federal-military retirees have caused a big, big jump in membership for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

Despite the fact that retired government workers are widely dispersed and often dislike "unions" and paying dues, NARFE membership jumped 66,000 last year. NARFE, with one of the lowest national dues ($6 per year) and one of the best lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, is now by far the largest of all federal or postal groups. As of May 1981, NARFE had 430,293 members and was growing at the rate of between 5,000 and nearly 6,000 per month.

The American Federation of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees, National Treasury Employees Union and specialized associations have been taking on new recruits, many of whom are scared of a RIF (reduction in force) or angry over White House and congressional actions and attitudes toward government workers.

Uncertainty about RIF procedures the search for new jobs and renewed interest in what federal fringe benefits are and how they got that way have been a boon to specialized publications aimed at people who work for the government, retired from it or would like to get in government.

The subscription office at the Federal Times, a weekly aimed at federal and military personnel, is busy these days. Most of the requests come from the 86 percent of the government work force that is outside of Washington, and eager to find out what is happening here

The Federal Employees News Digest, a popular weekly newsletter written by former Washington Star columnist Joseph Young, is getting even more popular with feds in the field. The Digest, $26 per year first class, is available from P.O. Box 457, Merrifield, Va. 22116.

The Digest also publishes the longest-running almanac with information for feds about everything from pay scales to retirement benefits. It costs $3.40 for first-class delivery.

Another popular reference for feds (with special editions for the military) is the Federal Personnel Guide, $3 for first-class delivery. It has 123 pages of data useful to civil servants. Address is P.O. Box 274, Washington 20044.

Job hunters, and feds looking for RIF-proof agencies, are gobbling up copies of the Federal Research Service's Federal Career Opportunities, and the tabloid Federal Jobs, both produced locally. The biweekly publications list not only available and upcoming job opening, but also news items and tips for people in government and job hunters. Federal Jobs Inc. is at P.O. Box 1438, Leesburg, Va., 22075. Federal Career Opportunites' address is P.O. Box 1059, Vienna, Va., 22180. FCO costs $105 for 26 issues, while FJI is $70 for 25 issues. In these uncertain job times, both are doing very well.

People who want a complete guidebook to government service are gobbling up ($6 per copy) the new updated edition of the Federal Managers Handbook. It is put out by the Office of Personnel Management and available from the Superintendent of Documents, GPO (stock number 1981 O-338-637).

National Journal is getting lots of extra orders for its White House phone book, and newest hottest item, Decision Makers, which lists detailed data on movers and shakers of the new administration. The latter costs $9.95 from NJ at 1730 M St. NW., Washington, 20036.