Congress went to the federal workers last night, when two congressional subcommittees held a hearing in a basement cafeteria in the Suitland federal center to learn from employes and their bosses how they feel about reductions-in-force (RIFs).

A representative of the workers testified at the hearing that the RIFs of 318 persons at the U.S. Census Bureau represented "all that is reprehensible about such group firings," while the bureau director defended the RIFs as an "unhappy" but necessary outgrowth of budget and program cuts.

The skirmish between union and management in the federal government took place before an audience of census employes, some of whom have been RIFed, some downgraded in their jobs and others worried about whether they will be the next to go.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose 5th Congressional District is the home of the bureau, conducted the hearing by two Post Office and Civil Service subcommittees.

Last March, 318 bureau employes were RIFed, and since then 124 have been rehired, some in their original positions and others for lower-level jobs. Shortly before the March RIFs, the bureau announced that it would furlough its 5,900 workers for 10 days over the next 20 weeks, but that order was rescinded at least temporarily after employes had taken off two days without pay.

At last night's hearing, Russ Davis, of the American Federation of Government Employees, testified that the RIFs had damaged important census programs, caused human suffering and were, in many cases, unnecessary because the employes were rehired quickly.

However, Census Bureau Director Bruce Chapman said that the RIFs were necessary because the agency's funding had dropped by about $76 million since fiscal 1981, programs had been cut and the "work could not support the number of positions occupied." Chapman said that the agency was able to hire back many of the employes because attrition rates increased to unexpected levels after the RIFs.

While Hoyer and other opponents of RIFs have pushed attrition as the way to trim the federal work force, Chapman said attrition could not do the entire job because it reduces the total staff, but fails to achieve "the mix of skills and positions required for authorized work."

After the RIFs were announced, 1,200 census employees petitioned President Reagan indicating that they would sacrifice 10 percent of their incomes by taking days off without pay, if their colleagues could remain on the job. Hoyer asked Chapman why that suggestion was ignored.

He testified that the continued use of such furloughs is "demoralizing" and would have had a great impact on productivity. Chapman also denied Davis' allegations that programs had been hurt by the reduction in employees. "Programs were reduced as a result of budget cuts. We live within the budgets given us," he said after the hearing.