The director of the Office of Personnel Management has approved an agency plan to tie pay raises for the government's 1.4 million white-collar workers to the turnover rate in specific job classifications and sections of the country.

The plan, which officials said would largely benefit women in low-paying occupations, would virtually eliminate the national 18-grade wage scale now used by the government.

Agency officials said the proposal to consider the annual "quit rate" when giving raises will be part of the legislative package that the administration will send to Congress early next year.

Salaries paid white-collar federal workers -- which are supposed to be kept even with those in the private sector -- would be determined by how much trouble Uncle Sam has in getting and keeping employes in various jobs and geographic areas.

Federal employes in jobs or locations with the highest quit rate would get the biggest raises. Those in low-quit locations or occupations would get smaller raises, or none at all.

OPM contends that women stand to get the biggest raises because they are heavily concentrated in clerical jobs, a classification that has the highest turnover. Mid-to-upper-level employes would get smaller percentage increases, or none at all.

The national turnover rate is 10 percent for employes in Grades 3 and 4, as it is for nurses and clerk-typists; in 15,000 of the lowest-paid Grades 1 and 2 jobs -- such as messenger, office assistant and lab attendant -- the turnover rate is 38 percent, the agency said.

But at beginning professional levels (Grades 5 through 9), OPM said the turnover rate is 3 1/2 percent. In the middle and upper grades, only 2 percent of the employes voluntarily leave government each year.

OPM said the average job quit rate in government is 3.8 percent, while it is 12 percent in private industry. That, OPM said, is proof that many federal workers are paid much more than those in the private sector.

Judging by telephone calls and letters to this column, federal workers are furious at OPM for saying they are overpaid. They also take issue with the assumption that the quit rate is a meaningful figure. They say the government rate does not include employes who switch to other agencies to get better salaries or working conditions.

Patrick Korten, OPM's executive assistant director, said the agency is proposing a pay system based on geography and jobs because "the existence of a national plan is a mistake" that the agency is continuing to try to rectify. "Any time you draw an average for pay purposes you wind up with the problem that nobody is average," he said.

"We got sucked into proposing a total compensation concept a couple of years ago," he said. Under that plan, now dormant, government raises would have been determined by measuring the total value of federal pay and benefits against salaries, vacations and pensions offered by industry.

"Carter tried it a couple of times, too," Korten said, "and it met with deathly silence on Capitol Hill. . . . It offended so many special-interest groups it became a political impossibility.

"Now we have an alternative that is really better," Korten asserted.

He also countered criticism of the proposal by saying that a federal worker moving from one government agency to another is counted as having quit.

"It is like going from one division of a big multinational corporation to another," he said. "When a government worker moves from one job in government to another, he or she is still continuing to work for the same employer, with the same pension plan, the same health plan, same benefits, same personnel rules."