Many of the 3,000 Washington-area people who got fired (RIFfed) from government jobs over the past two years would still be on the payroll if a pending change in U.S. layoff rules had been on the books when their agencies were passing out pink slips.

On the other hand, many currently employed federal workers, whose seniority saved them from dismissal, would have been fired under the RIF guidelines that are due to take effect in about three weeks.

A disproportionate number of the people fired during those RIFs were women and minorities, according to a congressional study prepared by the Federal Government Service Task Force. Most of them were fired because they were not veterans or had relatively little time in government.

Starting soon, unless Congress blocks it, federal workers will be selected for, or protected from, RIFs based on "points" they have for length of service, and those they have earned from their last three job performance ratings.

Under the system, federal workers would get one point for each year of service. They also would get 10 more points for each "outstanding" rating they get, seven points for each time they are rated as "exceeds fully successful" and five points for each "fully successful" rating. All employes would be rated in agencies undergoing RIFs, and those with the fewest points would be the first to go.

Federal employe unions don't like the RIF changes, nor a companion proposal from the Office of Personnel Management that would make it tougher for workers to get longevity pay raises.

The unions prefer an earlier proposal, by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), which would maintain the status quo for most workers. It would limit many of the rule changes to a test group of 80,000 federal workers. Unions would have the right to negotiate many terms of the test under the original Stevens plan.

The question is: Does Stevens still support the Stevens plan? He has said he will withhold judgment on the new OPM substitute until he has touched bases with employes and their unions.

Some of Stevens' advisers think the new OPM plan has much to recommend it. They say the proposal to test a merit pay system on a group of about 40,000 workers gives unions the golden opportunity to do what they have always wanted, namely, negotiate pay.

Some of the unions think Stevens' aides have been hypnotized by the OPM. They hope to persuade Congress (which has twice this year blocked similar OPM regulations) to bury this most recent offering.

But time is running out--for somebody. This is OPM's third, and possibly final, shot at getting its performance system in place.

The unions have beaten OPM twice before, but two of their allies (the Federal Managers Association and the Professional Managers Association) have endorsed the current OPM proposal. And finally, Congress seems to be running out of patience and interest in the civil service matter and would like to see it finally resolved one way or the other.

A House Democratic staff member said there is still a good chance Congress will block the new OPM regulations. "They the regulations really are a sham," he said. "Take their so-called 'demonstration project' for example. They could put six chambermaids into a boiler room and call it a demonstration project. It appears to us that OPM is holding out the carrot of a demonstration project even as it puts all of the changes it wants into effect."

An OPM official sees it another way: "We are serious about this demonstration project, and we are committed to it. The unions know how we feel about their negotiating pay OPM opposes it , but it is one of the items on the table, and it is a possibility."