"I told my landlord that I might have trouble paying the rent if I get furloughed," said the caller, a government secretary.

"I told him if I'm furloughed one day a week that's a 20 percent cut . . . and my agency is planning on 22 furlough days. He laughed. He said he hadn't heard anything about furloughs. He said his brother-in-law works for the government and he hadn't heard anything either. He wants the rent on time." The caller asked if I had any advice. Yes. For him, not her:

Dear Landlord:

Please go to a TV set. Turn to a channel that isn't full-time rock video or mud wrestling. Or listen to the radio. Best of all, read a newspaper! Get a second source (other than your G-man brother-in-law) as to what's happening.

About 80 percent of the federal work force is facing furloughs -- ranging from 15 to 180 days. In two agencies, employees could be furloughed 255 of the next 260 days.

Either your brother-in-law is one of the few not on the prospective furlough list or he is your current-affairs awareness twin.

Unless Congress approves a budget by Oct. 1 (the start of the new fiscal year), agencies will start sending people home. There are more than 360,000 federal workers here. Most will be furloughed one, two or three days a week between now and Christmas should the furloughs last that long. Each furlough day means a $70 million pay cut for Washington.

Can't happen? Wrong. It happened in 1982, when the budget squabble was less serious than it is now.

Some examples of how agencies plan to cope with furloughs -- if they come:

Defense Intelligence Agency workers are slated for 15 furlough days between Oct. 15 and Dec. 1. Most likely, workers will be furloughed two days per week for the first seven weeks, and one day in the last week of the period.

Most agencies -- such as Interior, Labor and the National Institutes of Health -- have planned for so-called short furloughs. That means 22 days or less during the fiscal year. But all are prepared to add more days in the unlikely event the budget impasse continues a long time.

The Air Force last week sent out furlough warning notices to more than 200,000 civilians, including about 6,000 here. Other defense agencies are doing the same.

The Office of Personnel Management reluctantly scuttled (on legal grounds) agency plans to let employees pile up lots of extra hours the final week of this fiscal year to offset the crunch that could await them in October.

The Interior Department is seeking a legal ruling to determine if U.S. Park Police pensions can be paid if the budget isn't approved.

Workers at the Delaware River Commission and the Susquehanna River Commission, tiny agencies with only four employees, may have the ultimate furlough horror story. Jeannette Gordon and Barbara Cranford, for example, are slated to be furloughed 255 consecutive days starting in October.

The idea of furloughs may be dumb, and costly, and wasteful. And unnecessary. But right now, furloughs are a very real possibility.