Like millions of people these days, Phay Somchanmavong is looking for work. But in nearly two years since the 42-year-old Somchanmavong immigrated to this country from Laos, he has yet to find a job. One problem is the economy; another is Somchanmavong's difficulty with English.

"I can do everything," he says softly, "but my language . . ." Shaking his head slightly, his voice trails off, his dark eyes reflecting his frustration.

In Laos, Somchanmavong was a secretary in the military office of education. His wife, Phamvay, 41, was a high school teacher.

The Somchanmavongs and their seven children came to the U.S. two years ago. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, needy families like the Somchanmavongs were promised 36 months of cash and medical assistance, in an effort to give the immigrants a solid foundation of help while they adjusted to their new country.

On April 1, under a plan promulgated by the Reagan administration, that period of special assistance was cut to 18 months. After the 18-month period expires, refugees who still need assistance must apply for aid under existing state welfare programs and must meet the same eligibility requirements as other aid recipients. Under the Refugee Act, needy refugees such as those from Indochina, as well as Cuban and Haitian entrants, were exempted from most eligibility requirements.

Administration officials say the new policy will help alleviate long-term welfare dependency and will provide assistance to refugees on the same basis as non-refugees.

Based on their experience with the old policy, supporters of the new plan say they believe it "will provide incentives for employment."

Nationwide, out of 309,000 persons receiving assistance under the act, administration officials expect about 112,000 to be affected by the new policy. In Northern Virginia, officials expect about 1,400 to be affected. At the same time, federal officials say they expect many refugees to qualify for some assistance.

One critic of the new policy disagreed, however, saying that many of the refugees in Northern Virginia are single persons or young couples with no children who will not qualify for welfare programs.

"Many refugees never believed it would happen until it happened," said JoAnn Mosley, a spokesman for Alexandria's refugee program. "They had very high expectations before they came here. They thought they could just be on welfare forever."

And even though Mosley expects the cutbacks to create problems for some families, she says, "The good side is that many are being forced to be self-reliant, as they should be."

Fairfax County and Alexandria began notifying refugees of the new policy early this spring, while Arlington officials began contacting refugees in early January about the possibility of program changes.

In all three jurisdictions, officials have set up special workshops to explain the new policy and to help refugees find work and apply for benefits under alternative welfare programs.

In Fairfax County, where officials say about 600 people will be affected by the new regulations, the county has joined with two other groups--the Virginia Refugee Employment Service and the Mutual Assistance Association, a nonprofit, volunteer services consortium of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Afghan refugee groups--to begin a counseling program.

Carmel Thompson, coordinator of the program, said its purpose is to provide training for jobs. "We help them fill out applications and assess them for aptitude and for manual dexterity . . . or special skills that relate to specific jobs they may apply for," she said.

"We also tell them that the American work ethic is not that different from their own," Thompson said. "We explain that work in the United States is an important part of a person's life, that one possible difference is that all kinds of work are considered important and worthy of a person's efforts, that even the lowliest jobs are considered valuable."

Douglas Smarte, of the Arlington County division of social services, said about 515 households have been affected by the new rules. He said the county has conducted three orientation programs since January to help with the transition.

"The biggest problem expressed was the need to find a job," Smarte said. He added that refugees are still eligible for food stamps if they meet income and other guidelines.

"Single individuals were referred to job placement services, our own in the county and outside agencies as well," said Smarte, "while some families were referred to general relief programs. Those not eligible for relief were referred to private charitable groups."

In Northern Virginia, the jurisidiction with the smallest caseload is Alexandria, where officials say about 300 cases will be affected by the new rules.

The city has conducted four special sessions every month since March to help refugees with the new rules, as well as individual counseling sessions to see if refugees needed rent money, food stamps or other help.

For some refugees, like the Somchanmavongs, the changes have brought uncertainty and confusion.

As their 15-year-old daughter, Khankeo, served as a translator in the neat but sparsely furnished living room of their Fairfax County town house recently, the Somchanmavongs shyly expressed their fears about the future.

Phamvay Somchanmavong said she attended a meeting and filled out forms but does not yet know if her family will qualify for aid. Her husband, asked what will happen to his family, tells his daughter to say he is sure to find work.

And even for refugees who are almost certain to continue receiving some type of aid, the changes have renewed old fears.

Moui Chung Ly is a 63-year-old Cambodian refugee who is partly disabled. Her 69-year-old husband has tuberculosis. Because she does not speak English, Moui Ly talked through an interpreter at a recent refugee orientation session at the Willston Center in Falls Church.

The Lys, who live in Falls Church, now receive Supplemental Security Income. Because of their age and disabilities, it is doubtful that they will lose all of their assistance.

Still, Moui Ly is frightened by the new regulations. Through the interpreter, she says she has looked for work. But she cannot stand for long because of a leg injury and she cannot work quickly because of a back injury. She tells the interpreter that she and her husband do not know where to go now, that they will not be able to pay the rent and won't have anything to eat.

"She says she surely is going to starve to death," the interpreter concluded. "She says she will die if there is no assistance from us here."