Striking air traffic controllers who want back on the government payroll -- even if they apply for jobs as clerks, carpenters, technicians or gardeners -- are going to have a very rough time, and a long wait for clearance to land.

The Office of Personnel Management, with the blessings of the White House, is working on guidelines to federal agencies that will instruct them to flag, for special handling, applications from anyone who has worked as an air traffic controller, regardless of when it was.

Instead of making an on-the-spot decision whether to hire the individual, as is the case with most federal jobs, agencies will be required to send applications from ex-controllers to the OPM.

OPM investigators will check the application to make sure the former controller was not actively involved in the strike, before sending it back to the agency where the former controller is applying for work. It is possible that some striking controllers eventually may be allowed to return to federal employment if they can prove that they were forced into joining the walkout, according to government officials.

The special handling directive aimed at ex-controllers will come in the form of an insert to the Federal Personnel Manual.

Federal officials, so far, have taken a hard line with striking air traffic controllers. In August, President Reagan -- after giving controllers 48 hours to return to work -- set in motion the machinery that resulted in about 12,000 controllers (most of them members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) being fired. PATCO has sought to return to the bargaining table, but the government has moved to decertify the militant AFL-CIO union as the bargaining agent for FAA controllers. A decision on the decertification is in the works before the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Insiders say the decision will be out next week.

If PATCO is decertified, other unions will be free to come in and attempt to organize remaining controllers. Although most federal and postal unions have been solid in their support of PATCO -- they have donated thousands of dollars to the families of strikers and lent lawyers to help PATCO fight court cases -- a couple are prepared to move into the void. Some non-federal unions -- including some big-name outfits with tough reputations -- also are interested in organizing controllers who are among the best-paid workers in government.