The Washington area is suffering a mild case of layoff jitters, the sort of thing that people in Detroit, Akron, Seattle, Erie and Buffalo live with nearly all the time.

Federal employment here is higher than during wartime peaks of 1944, Korea or the Vietnam war. There were 363,723 federal civilians as of last November. That doesn't count the uncounted at CIA or the National Security Agency. The record high was reached in June 1979 when 370,964 had U.S. jobs here.

The federal machine that pumps $900 million monthly into the metropolitan area payroll -- not counting the 60,000 military people here -- is going strong. But for the first time in memory, federal workers -- especially new federal workers -- are worried about their jobs. People are using the term RIF (governmentese for reduction-in-force) and talking about things like "retreat rights" and "bumping procedures" that come into play when senior employes are bounced out of jobs and in turn displace less senior workers.

President Reagan's proposed cutbacks have produced some wild rumors (and some maybe not-so-wild rumors) about layoffs.

Reagan's job and program cutbacks will have a major impact on the nondefense side of government. But few offices know the extent of those cutbacks yet. The numbers will depend on whether Congress buys the cuts (most likely it will approve some, refuse to authorize others), the relationship between job cuts and program cuts, and actual job totals of federal agencies as against their new, lower Reagan ceilings. It will also depend on the attrition rate in federal agencies that are still under a hiring freeze.

Some program cuts that sound (and are) drastic will not have that much effect on federal workers. The National Foundation for the Humanities, for example, is supposed to take a budget cut amounting to nearly 50 percent. But that translates into only 12 (out of 228) full-time federal jobs that must be eliminated by Sept. 30. And, because of the hiring freeze and retirements, the foundation is already down to its new, Reagan ceiling for the 1981 fiscal year.

Meantime, Defense is gearing up to hire more people (the freeze has been lifted for many Defense agencies), and many federal agencies continue to recruit -- but not hire -- even as they prepare for layoffs, should they have to take big budget or job cuts.

"You can safely say that nobody knows the extent of the RIFs that are coming," a senior personnel director said. "We know most of us are being cut, but we don't know how tough they will be or what they will translate to in terms of warm bodies." He said the picture "should be a little clearer" in a "couple of weeks." He said he had never seen "so many people so frightened" about their jobs.