Federal workers forced for economy reasons to take short furloughs this year will not lose their health or life insurance protection while they are off the job, and they will continue to earn credit for sick and annual leave.

Most agencies say it will be several weeks, or even months, before they decide what personnel actions they may take because of budget cuts imposed by the Gramm-Rudman- Hollings deficit reduction legislation.

Administration officials have repeatedly stressed that every effort will be made to avoid reductions in force of government workers. First priority will be given to slowing or stopping hiring and cutting back on overtime and travel. Furloughs would be the next step, and after that, layoffs.

In past years most agencies have chosen to furlough employes one day a week, or, more often, one day every two weeks to cut budgets.

Under federal furlough rules, employes who are furloughed one day every week or two weeks continue to earn annual leave and sick leave just as if they put in 40-hour weeks.

After they accumulate 80 furloughed hours -- that is, 10 eight-hour days -- they stop earning leave for a one- or two-week pay period.

They resume earning leave on the normal schedule until they again accumulate 80 furlough hours, and then they stop earning leave for another pay period.

"We're hoping to avoid furloughs, and we are certainly hoping to avoid rifs," an administration official said last week.

"But if agencies go into a furlough situation, we expect them to make them as painless as possible . . . . "