A D.C. review panel ruled yesterday that the Barry administration improperly laid off 48 Department of Recreation employes in 1981 during a major budget retrenchment, and ordered that the workers be reinstated and receive back pay.

The D.C. Office of Employee Appeals, in a 33-page opinion, concluded that the recreation department had failed to take into account the relative seniority and veterans' preference rights of the employes before ordering that they be laid off.

Moreover, the review panel found that, in some instances, full-time employes were laid off while part-time or temporary workers were kept on.

Under the ruling the 48 recreation specialists and aides are entitled to their old jobs as well as back pay and benefits, minus the amount they received in unemployment and other assistance. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represented the workers in their appeal, calculated the back pay due them at $2,179,164.

Donald MacIntyre, a national vice president of AFGE, hailed the decision but said the city should have acted sooner to correct an injustice.

"A quick reading of the decision shows that there were a lot of procedural errors in how they carried out the reduction in force," he said. "It was more the sloppy procedures that caused the reversal."

Alexis Roberson, director of recreation, said yesterday the city intends to go along with the panel's ruling, noting that her department already has hired back 10 to 12 of the laid-off employes.

"What the department tried to do, after the RIFs reductions in force , was to go to the RIF list whenever there was a vacancy," Roberson said. "We've been trying to settle this on a one-on-one basis."

The 48 recreation workers were among 688 city and school board employes who lost their jobs in 1980 and 1981 during a major spending cutback ordered by Mayor Marion Barry.

At the time, the city was faced with a mounting budget deficit and serious financial problems that had sparked concern on Capitol Hill that the administration could not handle complex financial matters.

Barry eventually was able to put the city's finances in order, but at the expense of a handful of city agencies, including the Department of Recreation, that took the brunt of his budget cutbacks. Moreover, Barry's administration wound up with a $68 million budget surplus in the same fiscal year that he ordered the RIFs of the recreation department employes.

The mayor insisted that at the time the RIFs were ordered, he had no idea that there would be a budget surplus and that unless he continued his policy of fiscal austerity, the budget deficit would have continued to mount. "I maintained that we saved the city from financial chaos and from an embarrassment nationally," Barry said last year in recalling the RIFs.

Yesterday's ruling, signed by Robert M. Jones, a hearing examiner, and Sharon Banks, chairwoman of the Office Of Employee Appeals, was based on testimony during nine hearings. The administration has until Oct. 18 to appeal the ruling.