The Internet has displaced car pools and water coolers as the place for office gossip. Thanks to its speed and worldwide reach, information can go anywhere in the world in no time. So can misinformation.

Rumors that were once regional, or confined to specific federal agencies, have gone government-wide.

All it takes for a job-related rumor to get rolling is that it seems reasonable--especially to people who want it to be true.

Thanks to this summer's rumor du jour--call it the "October Surprise Rumor"--many retirement-age federal workers can't wait for the new fiscal year to begin.

According to the rumor, as of Oct. 1, any federal worker in any agency offering buyouts must be offered one for the maximum amount, $25,000 (before deductions).

Most of the government buyout action is over, for now. But according to the Internet rumor, buyouts-on-demand are coming. No more targeted buyouts. So goes the rumor.

Under that scenario, workers in any agency offering buyouts are eligible. In fact, buyouts are, and will continue to be, a management tool. The agency, not employees, decides who gets an offer.

But the rumor has just enough basis in fact to make sense to people who want it to be true. Officials estimate that thousands of retirement-age federal workers have been hanging on in hopes their agencies will come up with buyout offers.

The buyout-on-demand rumor has fooled lots of key personnel officials, too. Some federal workers have been assured, by agency personnel offices, that Oct. 1 is buyout entitlement day.

Here's the deal:

Congress has given a half-dozen agencies authority to offer workers buyouts worth up to $25,000. They include the Defense and Agriculture departments, the Internal Revenue Service, the CIA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The law states that agencies decide who gets a buyout.

Congress also has given most federal agencies separate authority to offer workers early retirement. Again, this is at the pleasure of the agency. It isn't something an employee can demand.

Here's where the rumor was born.

Last year, a civil servant challenged his federal agency's selective early-out program. The agency (as Congress intended) had early-retirement authority and granted early retirement to people it wanted to leave. He contended that the practice was discriminatory. He won his case. The decision meant that any agency offering early retirement had to offer it to all employees.

Congress acted quickly. It authorized agencies to continue making selective early-retirement offers to people in places where agencies needed to slim down. But that temporary waiver expires Oct. 1.

Unless the waiver is renewed by Congress--and it most likely will be--once an agency offers anybody an early-retirement it will have to extend the option to all employees. That would kill the program because agencies would lose people they want to keep.

So the Oct. 1 date applies to early-retirement policy. It has nothing to do with buyouts. They are set by law, and the law allows agencies to decide who gets a buyout offer.

But it is easy to see why federal workers are confused and how the rumor about buyouts-on-demand got started.

The bottom line: Buyouts (where available) are a management option. Congress isn't going to change that, and there is nothing, as far as buyouts are concerned, magic about Oct. 1.

Anybody can ask for a buyout, assuming the agency has the authority to pay workers to quit or retire.

But when you ask for a buyout--before or after Oct. 1--say, please, because nobody is required to give you one.

FEGLI Basic Life

Several readers thought they spotted an error in Rep. Steny H. Hoyer's letter--quoted at length in the Federal Diary yesterday--about the pros and cons of the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance plan. The insurance open season ends June 30.

Hoyer (D-Md.) said people who buy the basic life coverage (annual salary, plus $2,000) all pay the same premium regardless of age or health. That premium is now 33 cents a month for every thousand dollars of coverage. Hoyer is correct.

The readers confused basic insurance with Option A ($10,000 additional coverage) and Option B (additional coverage in multiples of salary). Premiums for Options A and B are based on age.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causey@washpost.com

Wednesday, June 23, 1999