The slowdown in the Washington area economy is beginning to hit where it hurts: at work.

In the last few months, the local labor market has undergone a swift and painful transformation. Where companies until recently could not find workers, it is workers now who have trouble finding jobs.

Defense, banking, real estate and retail firms have laid off hundreds of employees, and many companies have not been filling vacancies. Some terminated workers have found jobs, but an increasing number of Washington area residents have joined the ranks of the unemployed.

"We've laid off 77 people," said Earle C. Williams, president of the defense firm BDM International Inc. "We are used to hiring people, not laying people off. We even let two or three secretaries go. Six months ago, we were struggling to keep secretaries."

Because the unemployment statistics for this area are released nearly six weeks after theyare collected, the new slack in the job market has not fully shown up. Still, according to figures released last Friday, the District's unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent, the highest rate in three years and a 1.1 percentage point jump over June 1989.

Unemployment in the entire metropolitan area rose to 3.3 percent in June, compared with 3.1 percent in June 1989. While that is far below the comparable civilian unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, jobs are being created at the slowest pace in many years.

Other statistics provide further evidence that jobs are becoming harder to find.

For instance, more people now are applying for unemployment benefits. In the District, 3,062 people filed such claims in May, up from 2,817 in May 1989. In the Virginia suburbs, claims in May 1990 were 1,839, compared with 1,208 the previous year. And in the Maryland counties, claims were 3,375 this year compared with 2,423 in May 1989.

At the District's drab unemployment office on K Street NE one day last week, applicants for benefits filled up the room. They stood in long lines, they sat in all the chairs, they perched on desks, they squeezed around a narrow table and filled out forms.

Some were members of the long-term unemployed, but others had arrived from industries hit by the slowdown: construction, office cleaning, other services.

For Thanh Thi Vuong, it was her first brush with unemployment since she and her family arrived from Saigon three years ago. As Vuong and her husband perched on the stoop outside the offie, struggling to understand the English on the claim form, she explained that she was laid off last week from her job in the kitchen of the Grand Hyatt hotel.

"I'm scared," she said haltingly. "I have four children."

The spreading fear is a marked change for a regional economy that, during the frenzied days of the mid-1980s, added more than 100,000 jobs two years in a row.

"For the last three or four months we have been creating jobs at a slower pace than the U.S. economy," said Richard Groner, chief of labor market information of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. "We have not been in that condition for years."

Creating only a few new jobs is not bad in itself, as long as the labor force -- those employed and those seeking work -- grows at a slow pace also. The unemployment rate, which does not include people too disadvantaged to look for active employment, rises when new job seekers enter the labor force and are unable to find work. In recent years, area labor-force growth has kept pace with, or even been slower than, job growth.

Now, however, area jobs may no longer be expanding fast enough to soak up those looking for them.

In one indicator of a slack labor market, help-wanted advertising in The Washington Post has been shrinking rapidly. For the period from Jan. 1 of this year through July 1, the volume of daily employment advertising was off 28.5 percent, compared with the same period in 1989. For Sunday, the decline was 14.5 percent.

In many occupational categories, advertising has fallen off just since the beginning of the year. Sunday recruitment ads for bank employees, for instance, were about the same in January 1990 and January 1989 -- but by June were 57 percent below what they had been in June 1989. Other professions registering sharp declines in help-wanted ads were insurance, retail, electronics, clerk-typists, secretarial, word processing, construction and personnel.

In late June, Garfinckel's Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection and said more than 800 workers would lose their jobs by the time the retailer's stores closed for good at summer's end. Late last month, Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank said it would lay off more than 100 employees, and National Bank of Washington's (NBW) parent, Washington Bancorporation, announced the layoff of 150 employees. NBW's takeover last week by federal regulators could result in further job losses. At least six other area financial institutions have said they either are laying off personnel or not filling jobs.

Layoffs also are rampant in the area's construction industry, which lost more than 7,000 jobs in the past year and in other industries related to real estate.

In one visible example of the construction decline, campgrounds in Fairfax and Montgomery County parks that were home as recently as two years ago to hundreds of out-of-state construction workers now report virtually no worker-residents. (The area unemployment rate probably does not fully reflect the construction slowdown, because many workers have returned to their home states and are no longer counted in the local labor force.)

Clerical jobs also appear to be in short supply. Applications are way up at AmeriTemps, Inc., a District-based temporary-help firm.

Students returning from school used to boost the number of summer applicants by about 10 percent, but this year applications are up 30 percent, said president Rebacca S. Tedesco.

"We ask them when they apply, why they want to work as a temporary. The greatest portion of the increase has been from those folks who were laid off from their jobs," Tedesco said.

The reality is difficult to comprehend in an area that was coping with a shortage of workers during most of the 1980s. Just two years ago, hotels were bringing in workers from West Virginia by van, restaurants were ordering managers to wait tables because waiters could not be found and other companies were paying workers for recruiting other workers and setting up on-site day care centers to attract employees.

In fact, much of the pain the region is experiencing now comes because its residents are so accustomed to the hectic expansion of the last decade. Help-wanted ads may be down, but they still take up dozens of pages in each Sunday's Post.

"When you go 80 miles an hour and then you slow down to 45 miles an hour, you're still driving and you still need gas," said Board of Trade president William B. Wrench, citing what has become an oft-cited analogy for the local economy.

The slowdown, moreover, varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. While executives in Fairfax County say the business climate is worse than they have seen in years or even decades, the economies of some of the farther-out jurisdictions -- Prince William, Howard and Anne Arundel Counties, for instance -- seem to be cruising in for a softer landing, according to officials and business persons in those counties.

The fundamental reasons for slower business activity seem to be the same throughout the area, however: real-estate overbuilding coupled with cutbacks in bank lending, added to reductions in federal spending and fewer consumer purchases.

Even those whose layoffs were not directly caused by these factors may still pay the price. Linda J. Wright, for instance, lost her job as president of Bankstar N.A. of Reston earlier this summer because it merged with Bank 2000 N.A. She wrote a reorganization plan for the merger designed to eliminate duplicate jobs -- and in the process wiped out her own.

Wright, who has been president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and still heads the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, is hardly a run-of-the-mill displaced worker. But she anticipates that tough economic times will make it hard for her to find a satisfactory new job.

"I've been president of everything there is to be president of," she joked. "And I'm lucky. I can tap into a network {of friends and associates.} But the situation is pretty scary. The economy will make it more difficult to find that right place."

The most troubled industries in this area are well-known: real estate, defense, retail, finance. But problems there are spilling into other sectors as consumers become more aware that the 1980s boom is over.

At Pohanka Oldsmobile in Marlow Heights, for instance, fewer customers are walking onto the lot than at any time since the early 1980s, said salesman Bernard Whitaker, adding that even fewer potential buyers can qualify for financing these days.

As a result, the sales staff has dwindled to 16 people from 22 over the last eight months or so, he said. As people leave because they are not earning enough on commissions, they are not replaced.

"The income of the average sales person is down one-third," even with a smaller staff, Whitaker said. "This is probably one of the slowest times I've ever seen. People are running scared."