A number of federal agencies are nearing the point of no return, when they must either get financial relief from Congress or begin large-scale layoffs of low-paid, short-servce workers to produce budget savings in what is left of this fiscal year.

Although the fiscal year began in October, many offices are still operating under stopgap spending authority (it expires March 31) because Congress has not cleared their budgets.

Most agencies were tentatively told to cut spending 16 percent. Some have already run RIFs. Others are planning furloughs to save money. Because of the heavy first-year costs of firing (severance, unemployment benefits, payments for unused leave), many agencies are at the point where they either can't afford to fire anybody or must find large numbers of less costly (low-paid, short service) people to fire this year in order to make any savings between now and Sept. 30.

Statistics worked up by the Office of Education show the high cost of delaying RIFs.

Assume that the "model" agency could get by with firing 100 workers, if it did so on Oct. 1. If the RIF is delayed until March 31, the agency would have to fire nearly 400 people to make the same savings this fiscal year.

If the RIF is put off until April 30, 773 people would have to be fired to make the same first-year saving that a RIF of 100 would have accomplished in October.

Unless Congress lets agencies off the RIF hook, every day that goes by adds hundreds of federal workers/taxpayers/voters to the list of people who may have to be fired unnecessarily.