There is nothing like the offer of free money to get folks' attention. Even in the slow news days of August when many regular readers are out of town, out of touch or otherwise out of it.

A close-to-home example: The Aug. 1 Federal Diary column. A slow Sunday when many federal workers were planning for or were on vacation and hence less attentive to the newspaper.

But the subject of the column--free money, call this number--was a guaranteed gotcha!

The column's headline--like many good headlines--said it all: "Special-Rate Employees in Line for Back Pay."

It pointed out that 100,000 federal workers, past and present, were in line for back pay ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. The amount each will eventually get depends on three factors:

* Whether the employee was in a special-rate job during the 1982-88 period. If so, for how long?

Special-rate employees are federal workers who are anywhere from 3 percent to 30 percent more than regular federal workers (nonspecial-raters) in the same grades. Special-raters get the differentials because they are in hard-to-fill jobs. They include many federal engineers and scientists, many medical personnel and in some areas--such as Washington--certain clerical employees in Grades 2 through 7.

Special-rate status can be based on occupation or, in some cases, location.

* The employee's grade and salary level while serving as a special-rate employee during the 1982-88 period. Workers in higher grades will get more, as will employees in the higher (longevity) steps of their grades.

* The final formula worked out between the government and the National Treasury Employees Union. The union successfully sued the government in 1983 when Uncle Sam stopped giving special-rate employees the same automatic annual pay raises that go to other civil servants each January.

The union set up a telephone hot line where special-raters could check in for the latest news on the long-running special-rate case.

The column ran that number with this warning: "You must have been a special-rate employee sometime between 1982 and 1988. The fact that you could use a little extra cash right now, or think you should have been a special-rater (or dated one, or whatever) doesn't matter. Frivolous calls will just jam the hot line, which--after publication of this--is likely to be very busy." Bingo.

Thousands of readers picked up the phone. At first, the union was delighted--until the volume caused a meltdown of the hot line.

With that background, the union sends the following update:

"A mention [in the Aug. 1 Federal Diary] of the phone number set up by the National Treasury Employees Union to provide information on the special rates settlement generated so many calls that it became difficult to get through.

"While the union appreciates the interest in the long-running case, it reminds callers that the phone number is to provide general information only, and that calling is NOT necessary to preserve or press individual claims.

"NTEU has established a new phone number with greater capacity which class members can call to monitor the status of the case and obtain an information sheet, as thousands have already done. The new NTEU number is 949-599-6022."

FAA's Nonbuyouts

Two days back on the job, and I managed to ruin Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey's breakfast. Blame it on pilot (as in mine) error. Why did Garvey spill her Cheerios?

Yesterday's Federal Diary listed various federal agencies that have authority to offer employees buyouts, worth up to $25,000, to retire. The list was complete--to a fault. There was one agency too many listed. FAA wound up on it, although it shouldn't be there. The agency doesn't have--and hasn't requested--buyout authority.

NASA for Sale

Many National Aeronautics and Space Administration staffers are concerned about budget cuts tentatively approved by Congress for the fiscal year beginning in October. If the budget cuts stand, many NASA employees--including workers at NASA's facilities in Greenbelt and in Wallops Island, Va.--could face layoffs.

So NASA types may want to buckle up when they check out the cover story of the August issue of Government Executive magazine. The story--called "Everything Must Go"--talks about the 1990 Commercial Space Act. That law requires NASA to contract out an increasing number of services and to purchase various items instead of building its own.

Federal workers in many other agencies may be able to learn a lot about their futures by reading the NASA-for-sale story.

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