Bernice Gray doesn't get it. A $37,000-a-year Department of Transportation employee, Gray figures Washington is about as expensive a place to live as anywhere in the United States. So why did federal workers in three other big cities get 8 percent cost-of-living raises this week, and she got zip?

"I think it's unfair," fumes Gray, a transportation specialist. "They are saying {workers in} other cities need more to live comfortably. We live in this area where the cost of living is high, yet they are saying we don't deserve the same amount of increase . . . I have sympathy for {other cities}, but I have sympathy for me."

Gray is not alone. When President Bush announced Wednesday that, for the first time, the federal government would raise salaries in areas where labor costs are high, he struck a nerve in the Washington area. Federal workers, and the area's members of Congress, were shocked that the nation's capital was not on the list.

In addition to a 4.1 percent raise that went to all federal employees nationwide, workers in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are scheduled to get the additional 8 percent pay raises beginning Jan. 1. Administration officials say the three cities were targeted because government workers there are the most underpaid nationwide.

But Washington area lawmakers said the real reason the area's 350,000 federal workers were left out was that it would cost too much to give them the raise.

"We believe strongly that the Washington area is qualified" to get the raises, said Charles M. Seigel, a spokesman for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "We suspect very strongly it was a budgetary decision."

"To give these raises to cities with smaller numbers of federal workers and not to give them to Washington is not equitable," said Steven Johnson, a spokesman for Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.). "Our understanding is there were budgetary concerns because of the large number of workers in the Washington area."

Washington area lawmakers have drafted a letter asking Bush to add the Washington-Baltimore area to the list immediately.

Administration officials do not dispute that money was a factor in the decision, although they say workers in the three cities chosen need the extra pay even more than those in the Washington area.

Federal administrators and a senior union official say that federal salaries are so far below private businesses' in the three cities that hiring and keeping workers there is even harder than in the Washington area.

"New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are really hurting much worse than Washington," said John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

But those three cities have far fewer federal workers than the Washington area, making the overall cost of the raises there much smaller than in Washington. A federal official estimated that giving 8 percent raises to all federal employees in the Washington area would cost more than $700 million.

Richard McGowan, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, said in a statement yesterday that "as always, there is a budget-affordability dimension to such decisions. Budget and funding realities mean that only the most extreme situtations can be dealt with in the near term."

But that explanation offers little comfort to Dennis DeVany, a Washington-based Department of Transportation employee who has to balance a personal budget of his own. "I always thought Washington was a high-rent district. It seems that way to me," DeVany said.

"It used to be people went to work for the federal government and sacrificed a good salary in exchange for good benefits, primarily stability. Now some of the benefits are being eroded. There is certainly not the job stability there once was."

Linda Royston, a printer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said all federal employees should have gotten the raises. "Whenever the government gets raises, everything else goes up," she said.

Joan Hepburn, another Transportation Department employee, was baffled when Washington was overlooked. "What do they mean?" she asked. "Even the people who own their homes outright can't afford to pay taxes on them any more.

"They are thinking about those congressional people, the judges and other people who are getting those big raises . . . . They forgot all about the little people."

Herbert Aswall, a Transportation Department supervisor and New York City native, said he understood why his home town is first in line.

"It costs one hell of a lot more to live in New York than here," he said. "But it costs a hell of a lot more to live here than it does in Charlotte, North Carolina."

The geographic raises are part of a massive overhaul of federal pay programs that began this year, and the list of cities is likely to be expanded in the future.

Several officials said Washington could be included later, although other areas such as Boston may be next. For Bernice Gray, the raise could not come too soon.

"Car insurance is expensive, house insurance is expensive, parking is atrocious," Gray said. "We need a raise at least enough for people to have some kind of goals they can reach."