THE ADMINISTRATION'S drive to reduce federal jobs and functions has produced enormous uncertainty and demoralization throughout the federal government--with the notable exception of the defense agencies. So great is the confusion that no one yet knows how many workers have been or will be affected. The records of the Office of Personnel Management show about 7,500 permanent workers laid off through last November. But a congressional task force headed by Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), says that almost 12,000 separations have occurred.

Over the next two years firings should accelerate as the administration tries to reach its goal of cutting non-defense jobs by at least 75,000. If the task force's survey of the early layoffs holds true for the future, job losses will hit hardest on minorities and on women in managerial jobs--the groups that benefit least from statutory job retention preferences given to senior workers and veterans.

Some workers will face dismissal after only a few days' notice. This harsh treatment is possible because many agency heads issued blanket notices of possible layoffs a few months ago. This was followed up later by a five-day warning to the relatively few employees finally given the door--thereby avoiding the inconvenience (to the bosses) of having disgruntled employees hanging around during the required 30-day notification period. Finding a new job won't be easy for most of those laid off. The "outside" job market is in a generally disastrous state, and many workers--especially those who have worked in government for many years--have skills with limited use in the private sector. The fabled "revolving door" by which departing government employees move smoothly into the corners of the private sector with which they have been dealing for years turns out to be rather narrow.

The losses in this process, however, reach well beyond the workers who are actually laid off. Huge numbers of workers are now working under the cloud of possible dismissal as agencies struggle to figure out exactly how many workers must be laid off and how best to apply the reductions. Layoffs are determined only in part by the new reduced employment ceilings that OMB has issued for this fiscal year. A bigger problem for many agencies arises from the still larger cuts in operating budgets that Congress appropriated.

Some budgets are still not set for the full year. Nor have agencies received the final word as to how much of the recent increases in general and executive salaries will have to be absorbed out of their current resources. This puts personnel managers in a bind. No one wants to lay off workers now if it may later turn out that budgets can carry a larger staff. On the other hand, if layoffs are not done early in the year, an agency can actually lose money by firing workers because of the high costs of severance pay, pension and leave rebates and unemployment compensation.

Adding to this confusion is the extraordinary disruption to an agency's working that occurs when laid-off workers exercise their right to claim other federal jobs by "bumping" workers with less seniority. The chain reaction set off by laying off one person may result in three or four other disgruntled workers being shifted to jobs of baser status for which they are less well suited. You may not think that government is efficient enough now, but wait till you see what it's like after two years of hard bumps.