Which of these statements about working for the government is correct?

a) The government is the worst place to work. Morale is down. Pay is 30 percent behind industry. Top management (Congress and the White House) is a bunch of distracted, foot-dragging politicians who care nothing for the workers. Fringe benefits are slipping.

b) Government is The Place to work. Job security, no bankruptcy and no buyouts by the Japanese. Layoffs are rarer than total solar eclipses. Pensions are linked to inflation. Retirees get equal health coverage, and the vacation package is tops.

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Since the October furlough follies, many workers feel government is going to the dogs. Many say they feel like pawns to politicians trying to score points. In the meantime, they get constant reminders that they make one-third less than they could in industry. Budget-cutters constantly eye their pension plan. And the highly touted new federal pay plan promises them equality -- maybe -- with industry in about 13 years.

But for every U.S. worker who feels he made a career mistake, there are several people out there looking at that job. Many private workers worry about the job market, corporate takeovers and real (not bluffed) economy moves that mean layoffs and cuts or elimination of health and pension benefits.

While the area's 3.5 percent unemployment rate doesn't make us Detroit or Allentown, Pa., it is a jolt. Last year, we lost 7,000 private-sector jobs while federal and state employment went up by 5,200. During the 1980s, our area added 100,000 jobs, mostly private, every year.

"More people from the private sector are looking into government employment," said an analyst for the Federal Research Service, based in Vienna. The service publishes "Federal Career Opportunities," a detailed guide to U.S. job openings worldwide. "Agencies are still advertising, because they don't want to interrupt the recruiting pipeline. But they are telling applicants it will be a long time before they can be hired," she said. "Yes, I would say government jobs are definitely in demand right now."

Ironically, one-third to one-half of all government jobs advertised require civil service status, meaning the applicant must be a current or former federal employee.

At the Office of Personnel Management's job information center, business is up. In September, it had 1,200 to 1,300 daily calls, about 200 walk-in applicants and 220 letters daily from job hunters. Publicity about possible furloughs caused a falloff. But now the applicants are back.

Obviously, not all of the applicants are qualified. Many who are still lack the experience of on-board government workers. But they are out there. And for a growing number of outsiders, the grass is greener inside the government.$10,000 Medical Bill

Workers and retirees hit with major medical costs next year could pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to nearly $10,000 out of pocket. How much they pay depends on the health plan they pick next month. For details, check this space tomorrow.