When the federal government runs low on money, the president or his Cabinet secretaries often impose hiring freezes and furlough employees, but experts and congressional studies have shown that such steps can be counterproductive.

"They cost more in the long run, create bad management by the agencies and demoralize the professionals in the business," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

That's what happened in the 1970s and 1980s when presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan imposed hiring freezes to reduce spending, when agencies furloughed employees or froze hiring to meet budget limits, or when workers were furloughed because Congress and the president could not agree on a new budget in time.

The current federal budget crisis has prompted recent hiring freezes in many departments, and many of the 2.4 million federal employees soon might experience the first government-wide furloughs since 1986.

Last week federal employees, 350,000 of them in the Washington area, received notice they may be furloughed up to 22 days in fiscal 1991 if Congress and the White House fail to agree on a deficit-reduction plan before Oct. 1.

If no agreement is reached by then, more than $100 billion in spending cuts would automatically take effect under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law. The Office of Management and Budget said that law would force a 32.4 percent cut in spending in non-defense areas subject to such cuts. Some major programs, such as Social Security, are exempt.

While none of this may occur, departments and federal workers' unions paint worst-case scenarios: massive air traffic delays, 200,000 preschoolers turned away from Head Start programs, no new cleanup of toxic waste sites.

Some government observers insist that the events that trigger furloughs and hiring freezes are only minor inconveniences with which employees must learn to live.

"Government always had a lot more security than the private sector and what you see is a lot more insecurity in both places," said Mark Abramson, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, a group of former government executives. "One has to learn to live with it and be professional and do your job in spite of it."

While it is impossible to calculate the cost of failing to agree on a budget this year, the past is littered with evidence that hiring freezes cause havoc in the short run and often are undone eventually.

The workload does not decrease, it is just deferred. Either employees who are not furloughed are asked to take on extra work or the job waits until furloughed workers return.

Long furloughs can cause serious problems, according to the General Accounting Office. Among the disruptions during an 11-day government shutdown in 1979, the GAO found:

GI Bill education checks were delayed eight days.

About $48 million in housing subsidy payments were delayed two weeks.

Payments to 22,000 people disabled by black lung disease were delayed 10 days.

Supplemental food to poor pregnant women and nursing mothers was suspended in two states.

The government also can incur costs it would not have faced had there been no furlough.

On Nov. 23, 1981, when a budget agreement was not reached on time, the government spent $5.5 million to send some workers home. But the government eventually paid those workers the $9 million they would have earned had they worked, according to a report by the House civil service subcommittee.

The last government-wide furlough was in 1986. It cost taxpayers about $33 million and employees were retroactively paid for work they did not do, the subcommittee found.

If employees are furloughed in 1991, however, they will not be paid.

From 1962 to 1981, federal employees went on 291 days of furloughs because the bureaucracy ran out of money before more was approved by Congress and the president. Appropriations were held up because of disagreements over abortion, busing, congressional pay increases, public water projects, U.S. military aid to Turkey and aid for or troop withdrawal from Indochina.

Morale problems are less easily measured.

The 1986 furlough is still a fresh memory to many employees at Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore, who demonstrated against furloughs last week. "This is not our fault," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local there. "People are just seeing this as the final straw. They're looking to take a bite out of someone."

Constance Newman, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said she does not believe the threatened furloughs have hurt morale. "It is not as much a morale problem as anxiety people have about how they're going to meet their {financial} obligations," said Newman. "It's stretching it for employees to say they are political pawns. They are now dealing with an employer with a money problem."

The government is limited by law in what it can do to reduce its work force. Unlike most private companies, federal government layoffs can occur only under specific circumstances. Workers generally are laid off only on the basis of seniority -- not because a job is no longer needed or because someone else does a job better.

That means a hiring freeze is one of the few mechanisms that cut labor costs quickly. But some managers believe freezes are inefficient because they are arbitrary -- the positions frozen are determined by who retires or quits -- and because a freeze is often too easy to circumvent by increasing overtime, hiring part-time and temporary employees and obtaining waivers.

"It's kind of a meat-ax approach," said an Office of Management and Budget personnel specialist. "None of these hiring freezes achieved their intended goals. . . . They leak pretty thoroughly."

Carter imposed three government-wide hiring freezes beginning in 1977 and during two of them part-time and temporary employment rose to the point where the total work force actually increased, according to a Comptroller General report. Reagan froze hiring for seven weeks when he took office in January 1981 and the effect on the work force was nil.

The Defense Department announced a civilian personnel hiring freeze in January and later estimated saving $780 million in fiscal 1991 as a result, according to a June GAO report. But the number of positions exempted from the freeze has grown and the saving now may be closer to $585 million.

The U.S. Postal Service, which would not be directly affected by government-wide furloughs, used hiring freezes to draw down its work force in Northern Virginia beginning in 1986, a time when mail volume in that region was skyrocketing. It needed to avoid a budget shortfall, and mail service suffered dramatically.

To make matters worse, when periodic freezes were lifted, the service was short hundreds of employees but vacancies were impossible to fill because applicants had found other jobs during the freeze, said Gerald F. Merna, manager of the Northern Virginia postal operation during that time.

"It's crazy," said Merna. "I think it's a way to show a sudden increase in productivity {because labor costs decrease} at the expense of drying up a pipeline of employees you won't get when you need them."

The Postal Service has a hiring freeze in effect at present.

OPM's Newman, who said freezes and furloughs can work, also said she believes the problems with the budget this year may be beneficial. "In the end it may turn out to be a healthy exercise," she said. The public will have to decide either to limit the role of government "or the public says, 'We want all these things and we're willing to pay for them.' "

Staff researcher Ralph Gaillard Jr. contributed to this report.

Nov. 23, 1981: Government-wide furlough that lasted a day when Congress and President Ronald Reagan could not agree on new budget.

Jan. 4, 1982: 220 Mine Safety and Health Administration employees furloughed for 30 days to meet budget ceiling.

March 8, 1982: 42,000 employees furloughed, including employees at the Census Bureau, Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Personnel Management and Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration to meet budget ceilings.

Oct. 4, 1984: 500,000 "nonessential" workers furloughed a half-day because Congress failed to approve new budget for several departments and agencies in time.

April 1, 1986: 900 Interstate Commerce Commission employees furloughed one day a week for seven weeks to meet its budget.

Oct. 17, 1986: 500,000 "nonessential" workers furloughed a half-day because Congress and Reagan could not agree on new budget. The Washington Monument and Statue of Liberty closed for several hours. There was much confusion about who was to go home. The Defense Department declared almost everyone essential, while the Education Department sent almost everyone home.

SOURCES: Office of Personnel Management, The Washington Post