More than 20,000 federal workers have been fired, and another 10,000 furloughed (from 2 to 90 days) without pay since Congress and the administration decided to chop jobs and trim payrolls as a way to economize and help get unemployed Americans back to work.

RIF (reduction in force) has become a household word here, even among that portion of the nonfederal population which usually refuses to use or understand bureaucratese.

Furloughs, a relic of World War II, are the talk of this town--and of other big federal towns like Denver, New York and San Francisco. Furlough talk has abated somewhat in recent days, thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration's temporary hold on a plan to furlough 30,000 people, and the Census Bureau's decision last week to halt furloughs--after most of its employes had lost two days of pay.

But additional economies, some like those that have turned $40,000-per-year federal scientists into mail-room helpers, are under way or in the works. Office of Personnel Management's 5,700 workers started their furloughs last week, and Government Printing Office is talking about furloughing about 3,000 here beginning next month.

Although it would have been cheaper to let attrition slim down the bureaucracy, Congress and the administration wanted fast and dramatic firings, even if it sometimes meant spending more to fire a worker (in severance pay, unemployment and leave payments) that it would have cost to keep him/her working.

The RIFs and furloughs have not brought a halt to redecorating of executive offices around town (local furniture stores love a change in administrations), nor the leasing of fancy cars (instead of being driven in a lesser government-type vehicle), nor the VIP trips to watch the space shuttle launch in Florida, while the troops back home got their pink slips.

In addition to people kicked out of government (as of March 20 there were 37,300 former feds drawing unemployment benefits), many have retired early. Others have simply quit, probably to look for something with more security--like rodeo bull-riding.

Furlough and RIF tales have appeared in the papers and on TV. But most of those made famous-for-a-day--at the emotional expense of explaining to the world why they can't afford groceries or clothes for the kids--tend to be forgotten quickly. Yesterday's news!

All of which leads to the guy who called Friday (he was on furlough Thursday) who wondered if, maybe, the government might make a small gesture to those it has kicked out the door, or just in the shins.

He would like something to show the grandchildren someday, to explain what he and others did in the 1980s to help their country: Namely, get fired or take a pay cut.

With all the money that Uncle Sam has saved RIFfing and furloughing (less amounts spent on reorganization, redecorating and rentals for VIPs who remain), maybe there are funds to strike a medal--sort of a Bureaucrats Purple Heart--for those wounded in the line of duty. Maybe it would look something like this, with the international sign for "no" superimposed on a dollar sign.