Senior Executive Service employes who get snagged in a federal rif would be temporarily assigned to other agencies to help them find new jobs under legislation approved yesterday by Congress.

The SES measure, part of a larger bill that dealt with several government housekeeping issues, amounted to a firing reprieve for 14 SES members at the Department of Energy who had been scheduled to be riffed Oct. 18. Those employes now have until Dec. 15 to find other government jobs.

Under the legislation, SES members who are declared "surplus" employes at an agency would be detailed or temporarily reassigned by the Office of Personnel Management to another agency for 60 days. If they are not permanently hired, they would be placed at another agency for another 60 days. And if they still have not found jobs, they would be allowed to appeal their dismissals to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The 7,000-plus Senior Executive Service was set up in 1978 and is considered an elite corps of federal managers, most of whom earn about $58,500. Promised greater pay and benefits in exchange for giving up traditional civil service job protections, SES members were supposed to operate at the highest career levels of government and be able to transfer their managerial skills from agency to agency.

But the rifs that have whittled the ranks of lower-level government workers have also begun to hit some senior executives as well--about 55 of them to date, with more expected this fiscal year. Many who have received rif notices say they have been having a tough time transferring to other agencies or finding work in the private sector.

"We've been getting all of the downside and absolutely none of the upside," says G. Jerry Shaw, president of the Senior Executive Association. He complained that SES members have not received their promised increased pay and benefits, yet have been more vulnerable to firings.

The rifs at the Department of Energy have caused a particular outcry among SES members there. They say they were given improper and unfairly low performance appraisals, which they are appealing to the MSPB. In addition, they complain that OPM and other agencies have not done enough to place them in new jobs, despite their transferable skills.

OPM spokesman Pat Korten said yesterday that agencies are prohibited from filling SES vacancies until they have looked at other job-hunting SES members. He said OPM has placed 17 of the riffed senior executives and is continuing its placement efforts.

The requirement that OPM temporarily assign riffed senior executives to other agencies could help placement efforts, Korten said, since agencies would have a chance to become familiar with the skills of a particular executive. But Korten said giving SES members the right to appeal their dismissals could prove administratively burdensome and further complicate the rif process.