Senior federal workers who would like to retire early, and younger employers who would like to see them go so the younger workers could be spared from RIFs (reductions in force), are disappointed by the hard line the Office of Personnel Management is taking as it reviews agency requests for early-out authority.

By law, federal agencies facing major reorganizations or cutbacks can offer employes immediate retirement, as early as age 43, if the once-generous OPM approves an early-out request. The idea is to create vacancies so that younger, less senior workers (the most likely victims of a RIF) can keep thier jobs.

While the OPM is pledging major efforts to help RIF-displaced workers find other federal jobs, its new Republican management is being much tougher than the Democrats when it comes to approving early retirement. In an early out situation employes can retire at any age with 25 years of government service, or if they are at least 50 years old, with 20 years services. Even with the pension reduction (2 percent a year for each year the employe is under age 55 many civil servants welcome the chance for early retirement, most to take other jobs in the private sector.

OPM approved five agency earlyout requests earlier this year, but has cleared only three -- and they were approved this week -- since Director Donald Devine took over in mid-March. Devine is the former University of Maryland professor who is a longtime political backer of Ronald Reagan. He tightened up early-out requirements and most of the 20 to 25 requests that have come in since he became OPM director have either been rejected, or sent back to agencies for more fine-tuning. That means that agencies, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that request early-out authority for all eligible employes are likely to get turned down, as was the EEOC earlier this week.

The three early-outs approved by OPM this week are of the fine-tuned variety. Labor Department's request for the Bureau of International Labor Affairs here was approved, and is in effect until Sept. 30. Labor's Employment Standards Administration got the early-out approval for 10 of its regional offices (but not Washington) but it is limited to eligible workers in a specific job series, wage and hour specialists, and only to persons in Grades 5 through 14. That is fine tuning. The other early out cleared by OPM applies to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., an example of geographic fine-tuning. That National Aeronautics and Space and Administration early out is limited to Grade 1 through 15, and does not apply persons in shortage occupations, such as engineers.

OPM is considering requests from a number of agencies, Economic Development Administration (nationwide), another request from Labor, permission for early outs in the headquarters and six regional offices of OSHA, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and several other Justice Department components. No action has been taken on them yet. But OPM officials say they will continue to take a very hard look at early-out requests from agencies and will continue to reject those that are too broad in scope, or those that don't include estimates as to the cost of early retirement to the civil service retirement fund.