For 31 years, Lois George sold Garfinckel's finest designer clothing to the rich, the famous and the socially correct.

"It was my life. I couldn't wait to get to work each morning," the delicate saleswoman recalled recently as she stood amid the bright orange going-out-of-business signs plastered on the designer racks in the downtown store.

With Garfinckel's bankruptcy filing last month, Lois George's days of elegance are gone. So, in all probability, is the money that Garfinckel's owes her: three weeks of vacation pay, two months of sick-leave pay and 12 weeks of severance pay.

As the once-renowned Washington institution sells off the last of its merchandise and prepares to close its stores, more than 800 employees are leaving virtually with empty hands. Pensions were not affected by the filing, but any vacation, sick-leave and severance pay will be allocated to employees as part of the bankruptcy court proceeding, in which there are too many creditors chasing too few dollars.

"We're really mad about it," George said in a gentle voice. "We really want it."

In this region, which has enjoyed rapid economic growth for so long, the Garfinckel's bankruptcy strikes a particularly painful chord. Not perhaps since the closing of the Washington Star in 1981 have so many private-sector workers been thrown out of work and into the labor market at one time.

"I'm here for 40 years, and my heart is aching," said Ilona Domotor, who began working in Garfinckel's fragrance department the year she immigrated from Hungary in 1950.

"I had a Garfinckel's check for my commission bounce. I lost five weeks' vacation, my sick leave, all the things we depended on. Don't the senators and congressmen watch these things? Here we are, in spitting distance of the White House -- do you think this is right? It makes me so angry I want to go over there and say, 'Where were you, Mr. George Bush? How could you let this happen?' "

Among some employees, there is resentment over large lump-sum payments that will be made to Garfinckel's top two executives when they end their employment at the retailer. Departing Chairman George P. Kelly and chief financial officer Thomas E. Wendel will receive $217,000 and $207,000, respectively, when they leave in the next few months, according to bankruptcy papers.

The payments are not severance, a Garfinckel's spokeswoman said, but instead represent compensation designed to induce Kelly and Wendel to stay on during the post-filing period.

"That is the enticement to get them to stay through" the next few months, she said. Kelly has headed Garfinckel's for two years and there is talk that he may try to keep a small Garfinckel's operation alive; Wendel has been in his post since March.

The spokeswoman said that the money is not coming out of Garfinckel's funds. Instead, she said, it is being supplied by creditor banks as part of proposed new financing under the bankruptcy agreement.

The payments to the executives, like much of the bankruptcy arrangements, have been tentatively approved by the judge in the case. But, as part of the new financing package, they are the subject of discussions between creditors and Garfinckel's and still must be approved by the judge in final form.

Between the June 21 bankruptcy filing and when Kelly leaves in the fall, he will have been paid a total of $266,314, according to a proposed budget. He is earning a monthly salary of $16,438 during the three months following the filing. Then, in his last month on the job, he also will get a $217,000 lump-sum payment.

Wendel, who will stay for six months after the filing, earns $13,788 each month, with an additional sum of $207,000 at the end for a total payment of $289,728, according to the document.

Nearly 200 workers were abruptly fired on June 21, the day of the bankruptcy declaration. Perhaps as many as 200 more have drifted away, looking for jobs elsewhere or taking time off. The remaining 450 still work in Garfinckel's nine stores, on the payroll of Schottenstein's, the liquidation firm that is selling off the merchandise. When the goods are gone, the workers will go, too.

Domotor, George and other longtime workers appear to be better off financially than some of Garfinckel's newer employees. When the old-timers retire, they can collect payments from an old Garfinckel's pension plan. But the program is restricted to employees who worked for the company before 1987.

The only pension plan available to more recent hires is a tax-favored savings program that essentially only augments their own monies.

Those who were not fired immediately are in somewhat better shape than those who were.

The remaining employees can retain health insurance, for instance -- although they have to pay for it, where formerly it was provided for free. And they have a grace period in which to look for employment while still earning a paycheck.

But those advantages do not ease the bitterness felt by the sales employees as they stand under the high chandeliers in the downtown store's first-floor showroom.

The glittering perfumes and cosmetics are gone from the glass display cases and the high-priced scarves and handbags have been replaced by cheap sunglasses and wicker baskets, though salespeople continue to wait politely on bargain-hunting customers as if nothing had changed.

"For so many years, Garfinckel's was like a small family," said former Garfinckel's president Hanne Merriman.

"People really knew each other. The store was built on this loyalty."

Meanwhile, more than 100 employees have signed on to a legal effort to claim through the bankruptcy process at least some of the severance and other pay they believe they are owed. However, the most that bankruptcy law allows workers to collect on a priority basis is $2,000 -- and it is not clear enough that money remains among Garfinckel's assets to pay even that. The excess of claims over $2,000 is ranked at the bottom of the priority list with other unsecured creditors.

The employees all have been paid for the time they worked before the bankruptcy filing. But a committee of Garfinckel's creditors, headed by The Washington Post, has asked the judge in the case to order workers who were fired to return the money they were paid after the bankruptcy petition was filed. The grounds: "The payment of pre-petition wages to discharged employees does not benefit the bankruptcy estate."

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Martin S. Teel is not expected to act on the motion for some weeks.

Attorney Roderick Angus, who is handling the employees' legal fight for pay, said employees who have outstanding balances on their Garfinckel's charge cards also plan to file a legal request to recover some of what the company owes them by not paying their charge bills.

"It is one of the few instances I can think of where you would be happy to have a large {charge-card} balance," Angus said.

Officials of the D.C. Department of Employment Services met with about 150 Garfinckel's employees at the downtown store last week to talk about registering them for unemployment compensation and beginning job-placement efforts.

Workers are eligible for up to 26 weeks of unemployment compensation and the DES will set up an office in the F Street store the day after it closes Aug. 2.

At area stores of the Hecht Co., more than 100 ex-Garfinckel's employees at all levels have come in for interviews, according to spokeswoman Peggy Disney.

About 10 supervisors and 15 salespersons have been hired, with more expected as vacancies open up and the Garfinckel's stores close down, Disney said.

An official of Woodward & Lothrop Inc., which ran an employment advertisement in The Post the day after Garfinckel's filed for bankruptcy, said the store is pleased with the number of applicants and is "looking forward to having many of them join our company."

At least some ex-Garfinckel's staffers do not appear to be so financially desperate that they will take any job.

A spokeswoman for Nordstrom, the Seattle-based chain that operates two stores in this area, said a "great number" of former Garfinckel's employees have come for interviews. Many have been buyers, an executive-level job in the retail business.

However, when the applicants were told that Nordstrom requires all employees to work their way up from sales positions, "several said they wanted to think it over," said spokeswoman Carol Ongstead.

Even though Nordstrom remains interested, no ex-Garfinckel's employee yet has come back and accepted the terms.