For the first time in a decade, paychecks of salaried American workers next year are not expected to keep pace with inflation, according to the predictions of economists and consulting firms that have surveyed thousands of companies nationwide.

Pay raises for salaried workers, who account for more than half of the work force, are likely to hover around 5 percent to 5.5 percent in 1991, while inflation is generally expected to come in at around 6 percent -- or more if oil prices continue climbing.

Nationally, average salary increases last year ran 5.5 percent to 6 percent for the white-collar, nonunionized work force, excluding benefits, while inflation was under 5 percent. Through much of the 1980s, managers, professionals, technical and clerical workers took home raises that beat inflation by several percentage points. But next year that probably will change, with most white-collar workers likely to find themselves in the same situation blue-collar workers have been in since the late 1980s: falling behind in the fight against inflation.

"Although the cost of living has been edging upward, employers are holding back on increasing the size of merit increases," said James W. Handlon, a compensation consultant in the Washington office of TPF&C, a benefits consulting firm. "It's not a cycle a large component of the work force is looking forward to."

A survey by New York benefits consulting firm William M. Mercer Inc. of 3,000 U.S. companies that employ 8.7 million nonunion workers showed that salary increases will average 5.4 percent next year, slightly less than what is being handed out this year.

The American Compensation Association in Scottsdale, Ariz., expects that companies will budget pay increases for next year that will change almost imperceptibly from this year -- about 5.5 percent. The Wyatt Co., a compensation and benefits consulting firm, expects employees will average 5.6 percent in salary increases next year. It received salary projections from more than 1,800 manufacturing, energy, utility and finance companies, as well as 400 educational, governmental and health-care organizations.

In the Washington area in particular, where average salary increases led the nation for the past five years, some compensation consultants are predicting a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of white-collar workers.

"There has been an extreme situation in Washington which has been to the advantage of employees," said Michael F. Emig, principal consultant with the Wyatt Co. in Washington. "But in the next few years the reverse will be more acute in Washington than the rest of the nation."

Emig said raises could be off by a half to a full percentage point as the engines of the Washington economy -- law firms, associations and nonprofit institutions, government contractors and the real estate industry -- focus on a slowdown in the economy rather than rising prices.

"Everything that is happening out there in these industries is all negative. We have been riding the tide and now we will feel the worst of it," Emig said, adding that cuts will hit hardest at the executive level and trickle down.

"People shouldn't treat the 1990s like the 1970s," said Lawrence Mishel, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. "Wages have been growing very slowly and there has been very little evidence of wage acceleration in terms of inflation. I don't expect much."

And companies aren't expected to give much. According to the Hay Group, management consultants in Philadelphia, salary increases in the Washington area will be off next year for everyone from executives to hourly workers. Executives and managers, for example, can look for 5.4 percent average increases next year compared with the 5.9 percent they got this year.

Those in the technical and professional positions that abound in the area will get average increases of 5.3 percent next year rather than the 5.9 percent that was budgeted for this year.

But even these projections might be too optimistic, Emig warned.

Because of concerns about their own bottom lines, some companies already are backing off from their estimates, while others are freezing salaries, he said. Many are simply playing it safe and offering not a penny more than the increases this year.

At the Federal National Mortgage Association in Washington, for example, pay increases are expected to be identical to the 5.5 percent average increases that were budgeted for this year.

David W. Berson, chief economist at Fannie Mae, advised the organization's budget planners that he expects the consumer price index to hit 6.7 percent this year if oil prices stay at around $40 a barrel until the end of the year. As oil prices drift down next year, he expects the CPI to drop to 4.6 percent by the end of 1991.

The natural impulse of employees, of course, is to press for higher wages -- a strategy that worked for a period when inflation hit double digits at the beginning of the last decade.

"Employers might experience some pressure to raise salaries more," said Jim Hudner, a consultant in Wyatt's Boston office. "But if the economy turns down, employees may be more concerned with keeping their jobs than the size of their raises."

This is medicine that unionized workers swallowed throughout the 1980s. While white-collar wages were growing, union contracts in private industry with 1,000 workers or more provided for base wages that lagged inflation. Many manufacturing companies opted to give one-time bonuses instead of raises.

Unionized state and local workers fared better because they did not experience the same wage cuts and freezes that the manufacturing sector did. For example, the 1.2 million workers who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union averaged 6 percent increases in the early 1980s, depending on what city and state they were working in.

But as health care costs have climbed, wage increases have not stretched as far as they might have, said Linda Lampkin, director of research for AFSCME.

Pay increases for federal workers went from 9.1 percent in 1980 to 3.6 percent this year.

Another measure of how production workers have been doing is how their average hourly and weekly earnings have fared since 1980 when expressed in constant 1982 dollars. On an hourly basis, there was little progress: Production workers made $7.78 in 1980 compared with $7.64 at the end of the decade.

"In the 1980s, the ability to make a decent standard of living was curtailed unless you were a college graduate," said Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute.

But compensation experts say that a paycheck is not wages alone.

"Salary alone, while moderating, is just one of the components," said Handlon of TPF&C. "Benefit costs are going off the roof. Employees should not fixate on base salary alone because employers have to manage all the cost pieces.".

Also, there are great variations in wage gains among types of workers and in various industries. Over the past few years, AFSCME's Lampkin said, some health care workers, such as nurses working for Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Southern California, have commanded annual increases of more than 10 percent.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics's employment cost index, which measures changes in employer costs for wages, salaries and benefits, bears out the differences. For instance, since 1980 pay for white-collar workers rose in inflation-adjusted dollars by 7.5 percent. For professional, specialty and technical workers, the increase was 11.7 percent. But those working in the transportation and materials handling industry had 8.3 percent decreases.

But unlike periods when inflation was high and the economy was strong, benefit consultants doubt that wages will climb much because companies have become leery of passing along labor costs in the form of higher prices for their products -- fearing that their products will no longer be competitive.

Sixty-four percent of the 30 Washington-area companies that Hay queried recently said that "corporate performance" was the chief reason for holding down pay increases for next year. Even those that were planning higher increases said it was the need to pay more competitively for talent, rather than inflation, that influenced their thinking.

"If we do get a spike up in inflation because of oil, we don't expect salary increases to keep up ... because chances are profits will go down," said Steven E. Gross, vice president and general manager of the Hay Group.

At many companies, there also has been a revolution in the psychology of pay in the last decade: They no longer feel compelled to raise wages just because inflation is climbing.

What has been happening is a slow "uncoupling" of pay increases from inflation. Instead of automatic cost-of-living adjustments for workers, which was the case at many companies when inflation was hot and the economy was strong, an increasing number of workers have been put on "variable" pay plans that are tied to some measure of the company's profitability. Performance of individuals or groups of employees also is being stressed.

"We have never really keyed salary increases to matching inflation," said Ann Cowen, second vice president for human resources at the Phoenix, an insurance company in Hartford, Conn. "We tend to be going by what is happening competitively in the labor market."

The other sobering news for employees is that in some parts of the country, the heat is off employers to worry about pay because the unemployment rate is climbing.

"There are spot shortages, but it's a lot easier to recruit compared with a year ago," Cowen said.