The special-rate back-pay suit, which gives new meaning to the term "long-running," has taken a big step forward. But the finish line remains far ahead.

"This case has been a marathon," National Treasury Employees Union general counsel Gregory O'Duden told Judge Nancy B. Firestone of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims yesterday at a hearing on a proposed settlement in the suit.

The class-action case dates to a 1982 policy affecting employees receiving special-rate pay -- the higher pay provided employees in certain hard-to-fill positions. The union and the government battled through three rounds in federal district court and two in federal appeals court. The union prevailed, and now the two are in the claims court.

NTEU and the Justice Department asked the court to approve the proposed settlement, in which the government agreed to pay more than $173 million to cover back pay, interest and lost retirement benefits.

"We were able to achieve a settlement and create a structure to give class members what they deserve," Justice Department attorney Judry Subar told the court.

About 212,000 employees were in the special-rate category from 1982 through 1988, but the back pay would go only to those whose raises were improperly capped during that time. According to NTEU, that should be about 129,000 individuals; many of them have left the government, retired or died.

The typical award to the special-raters, or to their estates, would range from $1,000 to $3,000. But in some circumstances much larger awards would be made. NTEU estimates that 50 people stand to receive more than $50,000.

Settlement notices were sent out this year for comment. "We think it's clear from the responses that the class overwhelmingly supports the settlement," O'Duden said.

Only 131 comments were received, he said. Several of them reflected a desire to have payments calculated on a case-by-case basis rather than through use of averaging techniques that the settlement would employ.

The union and the Justice Department, however, said that records are too scattered and incomplete to calculate exact payments for each individual.

At the hearing, Diary associate Eric Yoder reported, only one employee -- Jerry Curtin of Philadelphia -- commented extensively, questioning the methods to be used in certain situations to determine what an individual's salary should have been. Firestone said she would evaluate that argument before issuing an order to accept or reject the settlement.

"My hope and desire is to conclude . . . before the Christmas holiday," she said. "People have waited a great deal of time to learn whether they are going to be compensated."

If Firestone approves the settlement, the government would have 60 days after her order becomes final to pay the money into the settlement fund. Then letters would go to class members stating the amounts they would receive.

Nine months after the final approval, special-raters could begin receiving their payments, O'Duden said. Depending on how quickly the judge acts and the government pays, checks could start going out in late 2003.

In some cases, though, it might take longer. Class members could challenge certain information used to calculate their payments. Disputes also could arise over membership in the class, ownership of money due to deceased beneficiaries and other administrative issues.

"We are looking at continuing to work on this case for years to come," O'Duden said.

Transitions Roger W. Mehle, executive director of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, announced his resignation yesterday. He served as chief executive of the board, which administers the Thrift Savings Plan, for nine years.

Mehle's successor is James B. Petrick, director of the board's office of benefits and investments, the board said. Petrick joined the board in 1986 after working at the Justice and Labor departments.

Federal Diary Live Krista S. Lannert, a First Health vice president representing the Mail Handlers Benefit Plan, will take questions on the 2003 health insurance open season for federal employees and retirees at noon tomorrow on www.washingtonpost.com.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.