Office of Personnel Management Director Donald J. Devine has removed some barriers to the hiring of temporary workers and urged federal departments to hire more of them in place of career workers.

"Temporary limited employment is one extremely important element in a comprehensive staffing policy, and one which is very cost efficient," Devine said in a Dec. 24 memorandum to all federal departments. "Recent trends in agency staffing, however, show a disturbing growth in full-time permanent employment at the expense of temporary, part-time and intermittent staffing."

Although temporary workers are paid the same rates as permanent employes, they do not participate in the pension system or receive federal health-insurance benefits and they do not have the same protections against dismissal.

"We're not opposed to the administration shoring or strengthening the temporary work force for flexibility," said Loretta Ucelli, an official of the American Federation of Government Employes.

"But knowing the record of the administration, we're concerned that this could be a move to replace permanent career employes with temporaries who don't get the same benefits and protections and can be fired more easily."

Such a move, she said, would undermine the purpose of the civil service laws, which is to create a strong, nonpolitical stable work force that can "produce the services it's supposed to produce."

"We're going to monitor this very closely, because if taken to an extreme it would obviously lead to serious problems," said Robert Honig, director of the Federal Government Service Task Force, an organization of 50 members of the House and Senate.

An aide to Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), head of the House Civil Service Compensation subcommittee, said Oakar "intends to take a very close look at the new policy."

However, in an interview, Devine denied that his memorandum foreshadows a drive to slash civil service permanent employment rolls and save money by hiring temporaries instead of permanent workers.

He said the changes were being made for management flexibility and there are no specific money-saving goals or specific percentage goals for increasing the share of temporaries in the federal labor force. He added that the move toward temporaries is largely to correct an imbalance in the labor force resulting from the fact that most federal jobs eliminated in the past four years have involved temporary workers.

"There has been a 100,000 reduction in four years in non-defense" government workers, and only 30,000 of the reduction had come from permanent employes, Devine said.

As a result, he said, temporary workers dropped to about 8 percent of the work force, which he felt was too low because in many situations, use of temporaries is more efficient and more sensible.

"It's good management," he said. The two changes he ordered allow the use of more temporaries in jobs up to GS-12 instead of only GS-7, and permit them to be taken on for periods which, with extensions, could last up to four years before OPM approval is needed for further extension. The current limit without specific OPM approval is two years.

Patrick S. Korten, OPM executive assistant director, said any implication that the changes were being done to sneak in political appointments "is utter, total nonsense . . . . These temporaries still must be a merit hire. It may not be a political appointment."

In his memorandum, Devine said use of temporaries is often more efficient to fill jobs that later may be eliminated or contracted out to private industry or whose funding and workloads are uncertain. He said temporaries also can fill jobs being saved for permanent workers transferred from elsewhere.