The Merit Systems Protection Board is studying an idea passed on by the White House that would make major changes in the rules under which federal workers can fight RIFs (firings or demotions) and loss of longevity pay raises.

Federal workers who are hit by RIFs, or who fail to get within-grade pay raises (worth about 3 percent) now can take their case to MSPB and force agencies to back up their action with documents and oral testimony.

David Stockman, head of the Office of Management and Budget, has asked both the MSPB and the Office of Personnel Management to assess and comment on two changes, both of which could be accomplished by administrative action. One would limit appeals dealing with within-grade raises to the written record. The second would give federal agencies that RIF employes the final review on whether that RIF was in accordance with law and regulations.

Government workers get within-grade raises every year for the first three years of service, every other year for the next six years and once every three years thereafter if they are rated "satisfactory" by the boss. Most people get the raises automatically, but the number denied them has been growing steadily because the Civil Service Reform Act requires supervisors to crack down on alleged poor performers.

Last March, Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker--whose department has RIFfed a large number of workers--wrote Stockman to complain about the time and cost of answering employe appeals before the MSPB. He said that in some cases it costs the government more to defend its denial of a raise to a poor performer than it would be to give the employe the raise. He asked if it would be possible to limit those appeals to the written records of the case, rather than allow a "full-scale" hearing.

Stockman passed the suggestion on to the MSPB and OPM. His letter to OPM director Donald Devine said "the issue he Schweiker raises would appear to warrant a further review of the procedures and costs of hearings and appeals" in RIF cases and denial of longevity raises. (The MSPB last year estimated it costs $900 to process the average employe appeal case.)

Stockman's letter said, "I would be interested in your comments on this matter and also on the feasibility of a change in OPM regulations to provide final decision within agencies on all or most RIF appeals, since there are likely to be so many of them." If this is done, he added, "an agency would have to provide a genuinely fair and objective appeal mechanism, of course."

MSPB said yesterday any change in the rules would be up to OPM to make. OPM is working on revised RIF regulations it hopes to have in place by October