Short of one-horse open sleighs, Montgomery County is enlisting special fares on trains and buses to bring new seasonal employes to work for the upcoming holidays, County Executive Sidney Kramer and business leaders announced Monday.

The new Holiday Helper program is designed to help merchants in the county, where unemployment is 2.3 percent, find ample retail and service-industry workers to handle the holiday crowds. Although business leaders said they do not have an estimate of exactly how many seasonal employes are needed, they pointed out that merchants are already struggling with acute labor shortages and are increasingly worried that the Christmas rush will catch them without enough staff.

Lake Forest Mall near Gaithersburg, for example, posted almost 650 job vacancies during last year's holiday crush, according to Ben King, co-owner of Gaylord's Lamps and Shades in Chevy Chase and one of the business leaders who helped design the program.

He said that the employe shortage is so bad for his small business that he closes Mondays because he cannot find the personnel to mind the store. In fact, King canceled a sales promotion last winter because his store did not have the staff to handle the load.

The Holiday Helper program was planned by a task force of business and government leaders charged with looking at the problem of recruiting and retaining temporary personnel.

King said they attacked the problem like marines. "We were looking for a few good ideas," he said.

Marty Bonda, president of the Montgomery Mall Merchants Association, and Kramer explained at the news conference Monday that the task force believes that getting to work is the seasonal employe's biggest hurdle. The cost of "transportation is one of the major reasons" people do not apply for the seasonal jobs, Kramer said.

These leaders believe that the problem may be eased slightly when workers get cheaper transportation.

Under the program, new workers in the county can get free Ride-About passes for the Ride-On bus system from Nov. 15 to 29. Afterward, the Ride-About passes will be sold for $6, half of the regular $12 fare.

From Nov. 16 to Jan. 9, the program offers 50 percent discounts on Flash Passes to be used on Metrobus and Metrorail by the seasonal employes.

Current employes and holiday shoppers won't be left out in the yuletide cold, either. From Nov. 16 to Jan. 9, current retail and service-industry workers are eligible for a 50 percent discount on Ride-On, Metrobus and Metrorail.

Employers will have information and details about getting the passes.

Shoppers in Montgomery County can also pay a dollar when boarding their Ride-On or Metrobus and receive a Jingle Bus transfer from the driver. That transfer can be used anywhere in the county for the entire day between Nov. 16 and Dec. 30.

Officials estimated that the program would cost the county between $50,000 and $60,000.

One group that might benefit more from the employe shortage are persons with disabilities, said Richard Leucking, President of TransCen Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps find work for disabled people.

Information about the program is available from the county Department of Transportation at 251-2184.