Federal workers, once considered almost unfireable, are worried about possible reductions in force (RIFs) -- which could hit as early as August -- triggered by budget cuts and changes in defense priorities and domestic policy.

Several major Defense components, including Navy's Mare Island shipyard and the Army Materiel Command, are looking at major employment cuts.

The size and timing of cuts in these jobs isn't known. If Congress and the White House agree on a deficit-reduction plan, some domestic agencies could be forced to reduce employment. If an agreement is not reached, automatic cuts would be triggered that could force nearly every agency to cut jobs.

To deal with base closures and cutbacks, Congress is considering several bills that would let senior employees retire early to protect jobs of younger workers. It is also looking at far-reaching (costly and, in some cases, duplicative) job placement or retraining programs for displaced workers.

House hearings start next week on a job placement and retraining bill by Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.). It also would extend health insurance coverage to laid-off employees for six months.

More members are signing on as sponsors to the early-out bill by Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Her plan, limited to Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense civilian workers, would offer a five-year pension-sweetener bonus to people who retire. For workers who are already eligible to leave, it would mean a lifetime pension increase of 10 percent.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) still hopes his long-shot government-wide early-retirement plan may become part of a pay reform plan being considered by the Senate. The Governmental Affairs Committee had planned to start writing its pay-overhaul bill this week, but the session was scrubbed. Some members are worried by cost estimates of plans to set up a system that would set federal pay city by city, with U.S. pay similar to that for comparable jobs in industry.

Roth's bill would authorize an early-out this year for several hundred thousand workers. It would let many of those who don't meet regular age and service requirments receive immediate pensions.

The Office of Personnel Management has approved some limited early-outs for agencies (most in Defense) that face major cutbacks. More early-outs are expected shortly, including at least one for a non-defense agency.

In the meantime, both OPM and the Defense Department have major programs designed to help employees who might be hit by cutbacks. Defense has a lot of experience in retraining or moving workers because it has been hit by a series of base closures since the early 1960s.

Tomorrow at noon on WNTR radio (1050 AM) Frank McHugh, an OPM specialist on layoffs and early-retirement policies, will talk about what the government can and will do to help employees who lose their jobs.