Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) says his plan to limit federal workers to five days of regular sick leave a year instead of allowing them to accumulate 13 days each year will increase paycheck protection for younger workers and people hit with longterm illness.

Stevens' plan, reported here yesterday, is part of a complicated proposed overhaul of the federal retirement system that eventually would integrate it with Social Security. Unions were jolted when they learned that a sick leave cutback was part of the proposed changes.

Stevens says the leave "loss" -- the lack of ability to stockpile any sick days for future years or toward retirement -- would be more than offset by provisions that provide long-term accident or illness insurance benefits. After an employe used his five days of sick leave, he could continue at 100 percent of salary for a "few weeks" under the Stevens plan. Those ill for longer periods of time would have their pay gradually reduced to 60 percent. If the employe was out more than 26 weeks, pay would be reduced to 40 percent of salary.

The proposal -- still a long way from becoming law -- could benefit people who suffer long illnesses who must now must take vacation or leave without pay when they run out of accumulated sick leave. It also would benefit short-service workers who have not earned or "banked" much sick leave time, if they developed a long-term ailment.

The drawback, in addition to the complexity of the plan, is that workers who seldom if ever use sick leave (and there are a lot of them) could no longer save up leave and credit it toward service time for retirement purposes.

An aide to Stevens said yesterday's column accentuated the negative (cutting the number of sick leave days) without mentioning the positive, long-term benefits of the plan.

The bill has been in the draft stage for months. It is out for comment to federal and postal unions leaders. Many of them think the proposal -- which would put all new federal workers under Social Security and set up a contributory investment fund for workers under a dual civil service/Social Security system -- is too complicated, or that it would erode generous civil service retirement benefits.

"Frankly we have been very low-key on this provision of the bill," a Senate aide said, "because it is very complex . . . and we were afraid we would get opposition galvanized" unless unions understood the "entire package."

Stevens, a staunch supporter of improved pay and benefits for federal workers, said he is concerned that Congress may gut or abandon the retirement system unless it feels the program is sound and well-run. (Federal workers contribute 7 percent of salary to the plan and agencies match it with a 7 percent contribution. The government says the system costs well in excess of 20 percent of payroll costs).

It will be some time before the retirement bill is introduced. And it could be many months before Congress takes a serious look at it. Meantime, backers and opponents of the changes will be working to educate voters, workers, reporters on the beauty/horror of the plan and how it can save/destroy the CS retirement system.