AS MANY GOVERNMENT workers know all too well, there have been all sorts of panic stories nearly every fiscal new year's eve about how the government wouldn't be able to pay anybody because Congress hadn't passed a certain appropriations bill on time. Sure, said all of us familiar with how this works, but never fear - there's always a safety net called the "continuing resolution," whereby payments at current levels are allowed and people keep getting paid anyway.

But this fiscal year - now in its 13th day - has been different. Congress has not just missed the deadline for appropriations but also neglected in some cases to produce the necessary emergency measures: the continuing resolutions. As a consequence a lot of people and programs are already suffering in serious ways. Even though, in an effort to accommodate a chronically laggard Congress, this fiscal year began three months later than in the past, the lawmakers, embroiled in a months-long impasse over absortion, didn't enact a timely continuing resolution to cover appropriations for two departments - Labor and HEW - and a number of separate agencies. As a result, paychecks next week for some 243,000 workers - 43,000 in greater Washington - will cover only one week's pay instead of two. Moreover, those involved across the country include thousands of VISTA volunteers - people living at the poverty level who have been receiving subsistence stipends for their services - who already have missed a regular check since they normally are paid on a two-week-advance basis. These people, as well as hundreds of thousands of others who have been victimized unfairly by the abortion battle, generally do not have other sources of income or the ability to borrow easily. They have had to face the prospect of foreclosures, repossessions by creditors, an inability to buy staple goods, and all sorts of other personal consequences.

Yet on Capitol Hill, the failure to enact a timely continuing resolution has been rationalized as an unfortunate but necessary delay that should not be used to pressure Congress into a hasty, bad decision on a major matter of public policy. Besides, went the argument, the federal workers would get paid eventually.

Obviously the tail shouldn't wag the dog, but that needn't happen. The abortion battle may go on for some time. Certainly we don't think that what anti-abortionists in the House have pushed as a "compromise" - allowing government funds in cases where a woman's life would be jeopardized by a full-term pregnancy and in some cases of rape and incest - is a sufficient concession. In the meantime, however, a continuing resolution to pay federal workers shouldn't be held hostage. Responsible, sensitive members of the House and Senate must recognize the immediate need to enact a continuing resolution in some form that would at least cover the period until the dispute is over.