Short-timers whose jobs may be on the endangered list could be saved from layoffs by an extended early-retirement program for their older office mates.

Yesterday, the Senate passed legislation giving white-collar federal workers a 4.8 percent raise in January. The Treasury, Postal Service, general government appropriations bill--already passed by the House--also would extend indefinitely the about-to-expire right of agencies to target early-retirement offers to workers.

President Clinton is expected to sign the legislation. Officials say it will save the early-out program from changes that would have effectively killed it.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) authored the early-out saver, which could be a blessing to new and longtime workers. Hoyer and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) engineered the increase in the pay raise beyond the 4.4 percent recommended by the president.

The bill also includes a provision by Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) to allow agencies to give child-care subsidies to low-income federal workers.

Because of the pay raise, some agencies will be short of payroll funds next year. Others may have to cut jobs because of budget cuts or because of work shifted to private contractors.

Any of the above could trigger layoffs in which short-service employees, especially those without veterans preference, would be first to go.

Clearly, this is not a good time for someone planning a federal civil service career--or simply anxious about holding on to a job--to be low on the tenure totem pole.

The Clinton administration managed to keep layoffs below 30,000--while cutting overall federal employment by more than 300,000 jobs--by offering workers early retirement, buyouts worth up to $25,000 (before deductions) or both.

Now a new round of downsizing is expected, but only 10 federal agencies have authority to offer buyouts.

The new appropriations bill gives the Office of Personnel Management authority to grant early-outs to agencies on an as-needed basis. Many agencies were scheduled to lose their early-out authority Sept. 30. At the same time, a new rule was to take effect that would have made the early-out program less attractive to government.

Under the new rule, agencies could no longer target early retirement to selected groups of workers by job, grade, bureau or location. The ability to target early-outs, extended indefinitely by the new legislation, makes early-outs an attractive downsizing tool. Forcing agencies to offer buyouts to all eligible employees, officials say, would have effectively killed the program.

Once the legislation is signed, OPM can continue to give agencies permission to offer early retirement, and agencies can continue to limit early-outs to selected groups of workers.

Bottom line: Early retirement will remain an option for many workers, and some also will be eligible for buyouts. To be eligible for early retirement, an employee must have at least 25 years of federal service, regardless of age, or have at least 20 years of service and be at least 50. There is a 2 percent annuity reduction for each year the employee is younger than 55.

Buyouts

Indian Health Service employees are peppering congressional offices about rumors the agency has buyout authority. Congressional sources say the rumor isn't true.

Only 10 departments and agencies can offer buyouts. Congress isn't likely to give any other agencies buyout authority this year or to approve the administration's request for a two-year, government-wide buyout program.

The 10 are: The Departments of Defense, Agriculture and Energy, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Government Printing Office, the Architect of the Capitol, the Internal Revenue Service, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the CIA.

Retirement, Benefits Update

At 9 a.m. tomorrow on WUST radio (1120 AM), federal benefit specialist John Elliott will discuss what old and new federal workers should be doing to prepare for retirement or a career change. He also will discuss why Dec. 31 is the best date for many feds to retire.

Office of Special Counsel

At 10 a.m. tomorrow on WUST, Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan will discuss the importance of the Office of Special Counsel to federal workers and new initiatives planned by the office.

Weather-Emergency Hot Line

OPM has set up a recorded telephone hot line to keep Washington area federal workers up to date about weather emergencies and other emergency situations that might have a bearing on when--or whether--they go to work. The number is 202-606-1900.

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