E-mail never sleeps. Sometimes it doesn't work, but mostly it operates round-the-clock. Even over holidays--like Thanksgiving.

Many of us--including me--didn't show up for work Thursday or Friday. But thanks to e-mail, the questions and comments continued to role in. Thank goodness!

For a column like the Federal Diary, the only thing worse than being swamped with calls, mail and e-mail is not being swamped with calls, mail and e-mail.

Questions from even a couple of readers can be an indicator of what many others want to know. Or never thought to ask. Questions are also a good way to confirm--or knock down--rumors. Or clarify things.

Here are some recent questions by subject matter:

'Show Me the Money'

Federal workers may be the only people in the nation who know the amount of their upcoming pay raise--an average 4.8 percent--but not what it means.

Victor N. Baronoff, vacationing in Houston, says that "there is not much federal news here" and asks what's new with the raise.

Cathy Flippin says, "Not that I'm anxious, but have the year 2000 pay raises been listed yet?"

Bob Simpson asks whether there are "any thoughts or hints on when the president will announce what portion of the year 2000 pay raise will be designated for locality pay?"

Red Huddleston says: "Stop playing games. Show me the money!!!"

The 4.8 percent average raise will vary from city to city, depending on how much the president earmarks for locality adjustments. If he set the national raise at 3.8 percent, for example, federal workers in Washington-Baltimore would get a total 4.94 percent increase. But until that decision is made, no pay tables can be prepared.

Health Insurance

Most retired Americans lose their company-backed health insurance at 65. But federal workers and their spouses can keep their coverage forever, provided they meet the federal health insurance program's five-year rule. Retired feds pay the same premiums and get the same benefits as active-duty workers in the same plans, and they can change plans during open seasons. The current one ends Dec. 13.

But to be covered in retirement, feds must meet the five-year requirement, which was the subject of e-mails from Sam Teitelman and Cheryl R. Baka. They understand that to carry coverage into retirement, feds must have five years of coverage under any of the government health plans and must be covered when they retire. But, they ask, does that mean five years in total or five consecutive years? Good question.

Bill Smith, health benefits expert for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, said feds must have a total of five years of coverage in the federal program. The five years don't have to be back-to-back, he says. What is important is that, to comply with the five-year rule, the federal worker must be enrolled in one of the federal plans upon retirement to continue coverage into retirement.

Don Snider wants to know whether there is a "best buy" for employees who have other health coverage but want to maintain eligibility for federal coverage in retirement--in other words, a low-premium plan that will satisfy the five-year rule.

NARFE's Smith and Walton Francis, author of the Consumers' Checkbook Guide to Year 2000 Health Insurance Plans for Federal Employees, recommend that people in that situation check out the Mail Handlers standard option plan. The premiums are low, and the benefits (except for prescription drugs) are excellent, they say.

The Consumers' Checkbook guide should be in most area bookstores (in the magazine section). If not, call 202-347-7283. The guide costs $10.45 by mail.

Best Retirement Date

Veronda Powell, Rob Huddleston, Vic Mallory and lots of others want to know whether it is better to retire Dec. 31 or Jan. 1. Or does it make a difference?

It matters this year, according to benefits expert Tammy Flanagan. For the vast majority of people who work a regular Monday through Friday shift, Dec. 31 is the best date. That applies to workers under both Civil Service Retirement System and Federal Employees Retirement System--even those whose pay period ends Saturday, Jan. 1.

Dec. 31 is the best date, Flanagan says, because workers can get a full retirement check for the month of January and cash in the maximum amount of unused annual leave--at the higher hourly rate for 2000. The Office of Personnel Management says she is correct.

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