A growing number of U.S. agencies -- hit with surprise budget cuts or still operating without budgets -- are planning to furlough workers to cut costs and to minimize the number of employes who will have to be fired.

Best estimate is that 42,000 of the government's 2.6 million workers (30,000 of them in the Federal Aviation Administration) face furloughs of from 10 to 30 days. But the numbers are not solid. Many agencies hope Congress will bail them out, restoring some of the funds cut by Congress in its mad rush to adjourn for a month-long Christmas holiday.

This is the situation: Last year the White House told most agencies to cut spending by 12 percent beginning Oct. 1. Congress later approved a stopgap budget bill with an additional, surprise, 4 percent cut.

All but two agencies -- Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration -- have appealed some or all of their cuts. Congress may give some relief, easing or eliminating the need to furlough. But some government units, especially those that spend most of their money on payroll, could still be forced to fire or furlough employes this year.

Agencies last year fired about 8,000 workers nationwide for economy reasons. But nobody was furloughed.

Now furloughs are likely. And the Washington area, with its 360,000 civilian federal workers and $900 million monthly payroll, could be especially hard hit.

So far only one agency, Federal Mine Safety-Health Administration, has furloughed anybody. A group of Labor Department aides has volunteered to take short-term furloughs to save jobs of workers on the RIF list.

Radio/TV news reports this week made it appear that furloughs are near for most federal workers. That is not true. The news stories were based on a wire-service report (which was correct) announcing FAA's furlough plans, and listing some already-announced furlough plans in other agencies. That is what produced a "War of the Worlds" reaction among already jittery feds..

Washingtons's 89,000 Defense civilians (DoD, Army, Navy and Air Force) are virtually immune from RIFs and furloughs. So are workers in agencies where budgets are all right, or where cuts can be made by attrition.

Most layoffs last year hit Health and Human Services. Because of the new scare, Social Security chief John A. Svahn yesterday told his 87,000 workers (including 18,000 at Baltimore headquarters) there will be no RIFs or furloughs in his big HHS unit.

Federal workers scheduled for RIFs or furloughs must be given 30 days' notice, except in emergency cases. Only a few agencies have issued furlough alerts. Here are agencies that have announced furloughs, or have plans in the works:

FAA says 30,000 of its 45,000 people may be furloughed up to 12 days. Air traffic controllers would be exempt. Most of the 2,000 headquarters people would be furloughed if the furlough plan is implemented.

U.S. Mint announced weeks ago that about 50 employes may be furloughed soon.

Treasury and Transportation may furlough. But the who, when, where has not been decided, officials say.

Census Bureau on Jan. 20 alerted its 3,800 aides to be ready for furloughs of up to 10 days starting March 7.

OPM and GSA have sent out general RIF (layoff) notices to workers. Both also expect to order furloughs of one day per pay period, but they have not formally notified employes.

Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Merit Systems Protection Board face both RIFs and furloughs in their small staffs unless Congress votes financial relief.

That is about it! Cause for alarm, yes. General panic, no!

An OPM official said the radio/TV stories "gave us fits. It made people think the sky was falling in . . . "

Many agencies are talking RIFs or furloughs, or both. But what they do will depend largely on how Congress reacts to the reality of what it has (or has not) done to agency budgets.