More than 600 plants and factories shut down permanently last year, throwing an estimated 215,000 workers off the job, a congressional subcommittee was told yesterday.

The plant closings, described by organized labor as "a growing epidemic," were spread throughout the country with the southeast region the hardest hit with 169 factories shutting their gates. North Carolina ranked highest among the states with 61 closings, and only Vermont and South Dakota escaped having plants shut down, according to figures collected by the Bureau of National Affairs, a private research organization.

The figures were supplied to the subcommittee by Wayne E. Glenn, president of the United Paperworkers International Union, who called for legislation that would force owners to give notice to workers and the community before closing a plant and to help with possible rescue operations. The union executive said workers should also be guaranteed severence pay and retraining.

"No company would be legally prohibited from closing or relocating," Glenn said. "Rather, the legislation would simply provide the time and resources for workers and community to adjust to the shock."

Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.) of the House Banking Committee's economic stabilization subcommittee, said he supports many concepts of a plant-closing law but called it "a Band-Aid approach which deals with a failure of our long-term economic policy.

"What we really need above all else," he continued, "is plant-opening legislation--policies which ensure that a declining industry can stay open through efficient restructuring and which encourage the rapid opening of new businesses."

LaFalce's subcommittee has been holding a series of hearings on a national industrial policy, which has become a buzz word on Capitol Hill as Congress gropes for a handle on structural economic problems now bedeviling the United States.

He said yesterday's hearing is a chance to consider plant closings in the broader framework of an industrial policy.

The figures presented by Glenn amounted to 16 percent of the decline in manufacturing employment in 1982, during the nation's worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. There are, however, no comparable figures on plant closings for past years since BNA only began collecting statistics on this subject in 1982.

Charles Craypo, professor of the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, said the plant closings "mark the passing of the post-World War II industrial era--industrial consolidation and shifting investment patterns" as well as shifts in regional locations for investments.