Temporary jobs for sales clerks, postal workers and other traditional holiday season employes appear more difficult to find in the Washington area this year than in recent years, according to government and business officials.

"Retail sales are flat and retailers have not been hiring as many seasonal employes as in previous years," said Leonard Kolodny, retail bureau manager for the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Some preliminary government statistics support Kolodny's view. The number of full-time and part-time department store employes in the metropolitan area increased by only about 100 workers between September and October, normally the start of a sharp seasonal upturn, according to initial estimates by District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia officials. The total number of department store employes was tentatively estimated at 37,400 in October.

The slight rise contrasts with steeper increases in previous years. Department store employment climbed by 500 jobs during the same months in 1978 and 1979, by 1,100 positions in 1980 and by 700 last year. Officials caution, however, that this year's data may be revised later. Estimates for November and early December are not yet available.

"The seasonal hiring is not as good this year as last year," said Esther Harrell, a District official who helps prepare retail employment statistics.

Normally, the holiday season offers thousands of college students, retired persons and others a chance to boost their incomes by seeking temporary jobs as sales clerks, postal workers, shelf stockers or Santa Clauses.

Six years ago, Elisabeth Fall started working as a temporary Christmas season employe at Johnson's Flower Center on Wisconsin Avenue. She was 16 then, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, and her paycheck went for Christmas gifts.

Today, a 22-year-old graduate of Kent State University, Fall hasn't found a full-time job, so once again she's working at Johnson's, making $3.50 an hour taking orders on the telephone.

"It gets frustrating, having a college degree and not being able to find a full-time job," Fall said amid the clamor and confusion of the Christmas rush at Johnson's. "I feel a little like a migrant worker, but at least I have something." But Fall, one of about 30 temporary workers at Johnson's, is one of the lucky ones this season.

With continued high unemployment some stores have substantial backlogs of job applicants. A District official said the city recently sent letters to 15,000 employers, asking whether they wished to hire seasonal workers. "We only got 12 responses of people saying, 'Yes, I want somebody here,' " the official said. Some major department stores no longer want the city to help recruit temporary workers, the official added, because their backlogs of job applicants are so large.

Executives of several stores, including Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel's, said they have sought to streamline their employment practices by hiring more part-time, rather than full-time, seasonal workers. The temporary employes are hired to work only during the stores' busiest hours. The result, these executives said, is that they have hired about as many seasonal workers as they did last year, but the temporary employes are paid for working fewer hours.

Neiman-Marcus on Wisconson Avenue has cut its seasonal employes by about 10 percent, said personnel manager Lorena Sabbs. "The bottom line is that we've staffed more carefully," Sabbs said. "We know some businesses within the store are strong while others aren't as strong, so we were more prudent as to where we placed the temporary workers."

The U.S. Postal Service, once a source of numerous temporary jobs during the holiday season, has cut back in recent years, partly by shifting to mechanical letter-sorting equipment. A spokesman said the D.C. Post Office has not hired seasonal workers since 1979. Some temporary mail clerks will be employed this month in suburban areas, however. Postal officials said they have hired 45 temporary clerks in Northern Virginia and may hire up to 50 in suburban Maryland.

So concerned are some city officials about holiday-season employment that the D.C. Wage-Hour Board recently granted retail stores permission to pay seasonal and other newly hired workers less than the District's new minimum wage. The board raised the retail pay minimum to $3.50 an hour in September. But it said shops may pay seasonal and new employes at the slightly lower federal minimum rate of $3.35 an hour between Oct. 15 and Jan. 3.

Kurt Luber, assistant personnel director for Ridgewell's Caterers, which hires hundreds of waiters and waitresses for temporary work during the holidays, said he was surprised to find a man with a doctor's degree and several who are seeking master's degrees among this year's job applicants. He cited job pressures stemming from the economic slump and federal layoffs.

One of the Johnson's temporaries is Priscilla Randolph, a 54-year-old free-lance writer who is between assignments. Randolph said she is working to "pay for the necessities . . . It's only minimum wage, but, oh, boy, when I got that check it was wonderful.

"I didn't think I'd be able to stand for huge amounts of time like I have to, but like everything else in life, if you get interested in something you forget that you hurt. Or should I say you forget that your feet hurt."