Okay, so she wore a backless evening dress. And okay, so she wasn't chomping on gum and slinging down burgers. The maid, the cashier and the waitress just didn't care.

"That was Alice," said Della Shuster, who waits on tables and raises three kids in Everett, Wash. "That wasn't Linda Lavin."

Actually it was. But it was a transformed Linda Lavin, appearing as a gracious award winner at the Capital Hilton las night instead of the wise-cracking waitress in the frothy CBS sitcom "Alice."

"It's kinda hard to get the name Linda out," said Helen McKinnon, who works a maid in Richmond. "Alice is more natural."

"I don't know if she really knows what we're going through," added Shuster. "But she seems to."

The occasion was an awards ceremony and fund-raiser held by the National Commission of Working Women to nonor what they call "the 80 percent" -- or that percentage of women in the work force concentrated in clerical, service, sales, factory and plant jobs.

Earlier this year, the commission determined from a poll of working women that of all prime-time television characters, Alice portrays them best. For that she won a "Grassroots" award last night.

"I am privileged, and so I am not part of the 80 percent," Lavin said. "But I am because of Alice."

Lavin had it both ways during the day she spent in Washington. Here to receive the award as well as to promote her made-for-television movie "The $5.20 An Hour Dream," Lavin was at times Hollywood actress at ease with the cameras and questions.

But at other times, she was Alice, just Alice, frightened by her new role as spokeswomen for America's blue and pick collar workers.

"It was clear to me that day," she was saying over a very stiff lunch with a handful of even stiffer reporters at the Capital Hilton. Then she stopped in mid-sentence. "I just drew a blank," she said, looking scared.

"Eat your coleslaw," one of her entourage mothered from the corner. "I did," replied Lavin.

"Then take a deep breath," she suggested. Lavin did, and recovered.

"That was hard," she said about the lunch interview.

"I'm just beginning to realize I'm being identified with the working women," she said. "This is all very new. It's awesome, and it's encouraging, and it's scary."

For most of her 42 years, Lavin has-been an actress.Period. No speeches, no causes, no Jane Fonda whirlwind tours. But now, after four successful years on "Alice," the letters from the diners of West Virginia and the tak-out joints of Ohio keep flowing.

"Thank you for allowing us to laugh at ourselves," she says they say. Or thank you for caring, or for showing the drudgery of the minimum wage.

Lavin will be the first to admit in the face of this eloquence that "Alice," if not prime-time excellence, is prime-time profit with a message.

"I'm playing a character who is on her own for the first time in her life," she says. "That's allowed me to reach out to millions of single parents."

And now she hopes to reach even more of America in her television TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE will air in January. It is about a young TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE tionally held by men -- at a factory.

So in the Capital Hilton coffee shop, [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] in her television movie which will air in January. It is about a young woman who battles for her rights -- in this form, a better paying job traditionally held by men -- at a factory.

Not that Lavin, who is a tiny woman with tiny, tiny streaks of gray in her reddish brown hair, was ever a factory worker or a waitress herself. But she'll tell you that she did sell hankerchiefs in the basement of Bloomingdale's when she couldn't find theater work in New York. And then she'll tell you that now, as an actress, she feels a responsibility to the working women who identify with her.

So in the Capital Hilton coffee shop, she complains to the manager.

"This is an awfully low counter," she says. "it must be hard on the women."

The manager looks embarrassed. "We will comply with your regulations," he says.

"See that it gets done," she answers.