Something--maybe all those become-a-millionaire TV quiz shows--has reminded hundreds of thousands of past and present federal workers that Uncle Sam owes them some relatively big bucks.

In recent weeks, scores of federal workers and retirees (a few survivors, too) have contacted the Federal Diary for an update on the back pay settlement due 100,000 to 200,000 workers from the 1980s.

All these show-me-the-money workers and retirees worked for the federal government between 1982 and 1988, and they all were in "special rate" jobs, for which they were paid more than other civil servants in the same pay grades.

The special-raters got differentials--ranging from 3 percent to 30 percent--because they were either in hard-to-fill occupations or because their skills were in short supply in some places. Most special-raters were, and are, engineers, scientists or medical personnel.

In some cases, the government still does pay special rates for selected jobs in selected cities. One of the largest groups of special-raters in the Washington area is made up of clerical employees in Grades 2 through 7.

At one time, Uncle Sam gave the special-raters the same annual pay raises as other white-collar federal workers. But it stopped automatically giving special-raters the full amount of the annual raises in the 1980s. In some cases, special-raters did get the full amount. In some cases, they did not. How much of a raise they got was determined by the government's hiring needs.

The upshot: The National Treasury Employees Union sued the government. After years of litigation, the NTEU won. The government agreed to give back pay to eligible employees.

Optimists, including some people in the union and yours truly--assumed that the checks were practically in the mail. That was, uh, years ago.

The Federal Diary has updated the situation several times since. But the message is always the same. The checks will be cut when the details have been ironed out.

The settlements will likely range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. The big problem is identifying who is eligible for the money, how much and where they are now.

First, a warning. When word gets out--especially over the Internet--that Uncle Sam owes people money, all kinds of strange things happen. People who never worked for the government apply. People who worked for the government but were never special-raters tell the government where to send their checks. People who were special-raters but not during the magical years 1982 to 1988 ask when they are getting their back pay.

Some of these people may be the descendants of those trusting folks who, years ago, believed that sending their empty cigarette packs to a mythical charity would purchase an iron lung for their local hospital--in other words true believers who don't have a prayer.

Before you start anticipating what you will do with your special-rate check, be advised: Money from the settlement will go only to those who are eligible for it. Putting your name on a list won't work if you aren't eligible.

But for those who are eligible, the NTEU has given us this update:

"NTEU and the Justice Department have another meeting scheduled Jan. 25 in the union's continuing effort to work out payment procedures for special-rate employees due back pay as a result of a successful NTEU suit affecting those in special-rate jobs between 1982 and 1988." Up-to-date information is available from the union's Web site, www.nteu.org/specrates.html.

NTEU also has a special-rate hot line that works fine until the number gets published (like right now) and thousands of people try to dial it at the same time. Last summer, the hot line suffered a meltdown, forcing the union to get a new number: 949-599-6022. If you get a busy signal, just keep telling yourself, the check (someday) will be in the mail!

Gore Endorsement

The American Federation of Government Employees announced its endorsement yesterday of Vice President Gore for president. AFGE President Bobby L. Harnage refused to endorse Gore at the October AFL-CIO convention, saying the union wanted assurances that a Gore presidency would be more friendly to federal workers than the Clinton presidency. But Harnage said a survey of members, local union leaders and national leaders backed Gore. "Gore has been a friend of government workers, supporting the programs we administer," Harnage said.

"AFGE members have seen agencies where 'partnership' [with the administration] is working well on behalf of the American taxpayer, and we have seen places where the concept has not yet taken hold. But we know we need Al Gore at the helm to continue the achievements we've made so far."

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