Anxiety among federal workers about their futures is deepening throughout the Washington region, new survey data show, as President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress head for a showdown over the budget.
Federal agencies are preparing for a temporary shutdown on Oct. 1 if the president and Congress have not agreed on spending bills for the new fiscal year. The administration also has asked agencies to draw up contingency plans for laying off employees and canceling contracts this fall if the two sides cannot reach a settlement promptly.But those plans address possible short-term layoffs. For the longer haul, four of every 10 federal employees fear losing their jobs because of budget reductions, according to a poll earlier this month by the Greater Washington Consumer Survey. Four out of five believe their agency will be hit by cutbacks. In a Washington Post survey in the spring, one-third of federal workers surveyed believed their jobs were at risk.
"Right now everybody is concerned about one thing," said Thurman M. Davis, acting deputy administrator of the General Services Administration. "The train wreck," he said, referring to the common metaphor for an extended furlough of federal workers beginning Oct. 1.
"We have a lot of folks on our payroll who live paycheck to paycheck," he said.
Actual job reductions have not been as bad as the flagging morale would indicate, according to Peter E. Ognibene, editor and publisher of Federal Jobs Digest, a publication focused on the federal work force. "Really there are very few RIFs (reductions in force) at this point," he said.
But the result of the budget confrontation is likely to mean tens of thousands of additional layoffs over the next few years, many analysts believe.
In an estimate by Mahlon R. Straszheim, chairman of the University of Maryland's economics department, current and future cuts in federal employment could total 500,000 nationally over the next few years.
That "is a frightening number," Ognibene said, "but if you project it out over three or four years, the normal retirement rate more than accommodates those figures."
A government shutdown Oct. 1 would likely kick off a series of negotiations between President Clinton and the congressional leadership over a budget plan for next year. Over the past two months, provisions in almost all the House appropriations bill and some in Senate bills have drawn veto threats from the White House.
Under one of many scenarios, the White House and Congress could keep the government running with a "continuing resolution" while continuing to negotiate, but at lower spending levels that could force layoffs and delay government contracts, said Stanley E. Collender of Price Waterhouse, who edits the Federal Budget Report newsletter.
Many federal employees tend to dismiss the dire tidings. Previous shutdowns were settled after a day or two with no loss of wages.
"Federal employees have been through a lot of these scares a number of times. It's very difficult to accept the fact it's going to happen and, if it does, it will be as bad as it could be," said G. Jerry Shaw, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association, whose members are high-ranking federal execu-tives.
But he and Collender agree this time is likely to be different. "This is the first time I've seen in my 25 years in Washington where both the administration and Congress are dedicated to making major cutbacks in federal employment and benefits, one way or another," Shaw said.