Office of Personnel Management has advised agencies with budget problems to try the least-painful money-saving options before they go to RIFs (reductions in force). Most non-Defense operations are under the gun to reduce expenditures 4 percent this fiscal year. They also are bracing for job cuts (to be outlined in the president's budget in January) that will trim 75,000 non-Defense jobs over the next two years.

Some units already have had to RIF people. Others are planning layoffs. But others, OPM advises, can mix their actions to minimize the impact on people.

For instance, OPM advises that as a first step agencies can freeze hiring and promotions. (Health and Human Services and Interior already have stopped most hiring). Agencies also are encouraged to cut back or eliminate overtime and holiday work and cut back on the number of temporaries.

Step 2 involves allowing workers to volunteer for leave-without-pay, or to voluntarily go on reduced workweeks. "Agencies are cautioned," the OPM guidelines say, "that requests for such changes must be voluntary" and that union contracts must be honored.

Step 3 is the use of short-term (fewer than 30 days) furloughs to reduce costs.

The final step is the RIF. Many agencies are so hard-pressed for money that they will be unable to avoid RIFs; the other actions -- such as promotion freezes or voluntary hours reductions -- won't be enough. The job picture will be clearer after the president's budget goes to Congress, but it makes sense, now, to freeze hiring when people are already being fired, or to limit hiring to people targeted for RIFs.