When the Little Sisters of the Poor needed to hire a physical therapist for their new nursing home in Northeast Washington last fall, they spent several months in a fruitless search. They finally contracted the service out to a private company.

Many agencies in the District have had similar difficulty hiring physical therapists, according to Linda Silverman, placement chairman of the D.C. chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association.

Although there is a national shortage of licensed therapists, Silverman and others in the profession said the problem in the District stems partly from the city's lengthy licensing procedure, which tends to dissuade therapists licensed in other states from working here.

Because the District does not issue temporary licenses, D.C. City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) has introduced a bill that would allow out-of-state physical therapists, pending their licensing in the District, to practice for 120 days under the supervision of a D.C. therapist.

But that legislation, like its predecessors, languishes in a City Council committee.

"Now, it usually doesn't take any more than a month to get a license provided the therapist has a license somewhere else," said Gloria Lawson Rogers, chairman of the D.C. Physical Therapy Examining Board. "But things sometimes get slowed up because people don't do all the things they are supposed to do."

Some therapists have waited up to six months for licenses, she said.

When licensed therapists come to this area, they have the District, Virginia and Maryland to choose from for their work, said Kathryn Nickelsberg, president of the D.C. chapter of APTA. "If they can't wait for a District license, they can find a job in Virginia or Maryland," she said.

Physical therapists are crucial to those needing their services. They treat those physically disabled by injury or disease or those at risk of becoming disabled. They give exercises, electric stimulation, deep heat treatments and therapeutic massages.

There are about 420 physical therapists licensed to practice in the District. Most work in hospitals; others work on contract with the Visiting Nurses Association to provide home health care and a few have opened private practices.

The proposed legislation, introduced in the City Council in 1981, also would require for the first time the licensing of physical therapy assistants.

Rogers said licensing the assistants would protect patients from receiving inadequate care and prevent doctors "from making thousands of dollars off of unqualified people."

She added, "There have been instances when physicians have been skirting the law. Unlicensed people have been practicing physical therapy in their doctors' offices. Nothing in that bill would harm the medical profession but would allow quality service to the public."

Last year, hopes for the bill's passage were dashed because the controversial issue of no-fault auto insurance came up "right when our markup was scheduled so it the markup was canceled," Rogers said.

This year, Susan Ryerson, former president of the District's APTA chapter and now its legislative chairman, said the therapists are back talking to council members and their legislative aides, determined not to let the bill die in committee.