Government workers who are eligible to retire and anxious about qualifying for a lump-sum pension payment need to stay loose over the next few weeks. It seems the midsummer lump-sum jitters have returned.

Although there is no indication the popular benefit is endangered, some workers claim their offices got warnings from headquarters telling them to be ready to bail out before the payments are eliminated.

A similar panic set in at this time last year. People worried about an Oct. 1 surprise. The lump-sum payments survived, although the issue wasn't settled until the last week in November.

Yesterday, half a dozen out-of-towners, who identified themselves as postal workers or Social Security employees, called to say their offices had cables from Washington alerting them that the lump-sum benefit was on its last legs. All said the warnings assumed that the benefit would be eliminated by Oct. 1 (the start of the new fiscal year). None of the employees had the document in hand, and each reported that it gave a different retirement deadline date.

Postal officials say they haven't issued any such warning. Social Security brass said they were checking, but knew of no such warning.

A top official with the Office of Personnel Management's retirement division said it appears "somebody hit the panic button a little early." Congressional sources said that while the benefit is on the budget table, there is no reason to panic.

Here is the situation:

Retirees can take a lump-sum payment. It is an amount equal to their contributions to the pension plan. It can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $90,000 depending on salary and length of service. Most retirees take the payments that, in the Washington area, average about $32,000.

The payments are in two installments. Retirees get 50 percent shortly after retiring and the remaining 50 percent one year from the date of retirement.

The split is a temporary measure approved late last year by Congress. It expires Sept. 30. After Sept. 30, unless Congress extends, changes or eliminates the benefit, retirees will get 100 percent of their lump-sum payment in a single check.

Nobody thinks Congress and the White House will allow the one-shot payment. It would cost the government an additional $750 million a year. President Bush (as did President Reagan) has asked that the lump sum be eliminated. Congress has rejected this proposal every year, which is why most people expect the 50-50 split will be extended again.

But there is the possibility that the lump-sum benefit could be eliminated at the last minute. If -- and this is a big "if" -- the lump-sum benefit is eliminated, OPM says the date for retiring to qualify for the payment depends on how the law is worded. It could be Aug. 31, it could be Sept. 3 or even later. Stay tuned, but don't panic.