It is hard to know whether the furlough threat hanging over thousands of government workers is real or whether the F-word is part of the bluffing associated with the budget process.

Although it seems absurd that federal employees (particularly in the Defense Department) would be furloughed as the nation goes on a war footing, furloughs have happened before: In 1982 more than 40,000 workers were laid off briefly because of a budget impasse between Congress and the White House.

Although many federal officials doubt there will be furloughs, they are spending a lot of time preparing for them. Many workers have received stern-sounding furlough warning letters.

The worst part of a furlough would be the pay loss. But there are other considerations too, such as the effect on health, life insurance and retirement benefits. Keep in mind that being furloughed would not constitute a break in service. It would merely place the employee in unpaid status.

Furlough facts:

Presidential appointees (such as Cabinet and agency heads) aren't subject to furloughs, but they could return part of their salaries to their agencies. That means your agency head won't be furloughed if you are. But he or she could bite the financial bullet by giving up a portion of salary equal to what you would lose on furlough.

Career and non-career members of the Senior Executive Service and administrative law judges are subject to furlough.

Furloughed employees could take other jobs (provided there is no conflict with their federal employment), including with other federal agencies.

Furloughed employees would be covered by their health policies. The government contribution (about 60 percent of the total premium) would continue. Workers could continue to have their premiums withheld from their paychecks or let them accumulate and then be withheld from their checks after they return to duty. Whatever you do, don't drop your health coverage!

Life insurance coverage would continue for furloughed employees for up to 12 consecutive months in unpaid status without cost to the employee.

Retirement credit would continue during furloughs. The Office of Personnel Management says that generally there would be no effect on the high-three-years average salary (used to compute pension benefits) unless the employee was furloughed for six months or more during a calendar year.

Although furloughed employees would be permitted to take paying jobs in other federal agencies, they could not, in most instances, work without pay at their own job or any other federal job.

By the way: If you are furloughed, it would be because the high-level White House and congressional budget summit failed to reach agreement. Principals in the group are four officials from the White House and 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans from Congress. None of them will be furloughed or lose a nickel in salary, if you are temporarily laid off. This Sunday we will list their names for your information.