Developers, architects and engineers all contributed to the Washington region's office building boom, but so did a Laotian refugee named Ounheuane Vichith.

He did it by stripping asbestos for a living -- removing tiles and insulation from buildings undergoing renovation or demolition.

It was work few would envy. But for Vichith and about 75 fellow Laotians employed by a Maryland-based asbestos removal firm, it was a good, steady job -- until two months ago.

Vichith and about 40 other Laotians working in the same shop have been laid off, casualties of the overbuilt office market. In the process, they have become an example of the financial free fall many immigrants are experiencing as the local economy turns increasingly sour.

Vichith, 35, is collecting unemployment benefits but is scrambling to pay the rent for his District apartment and becoming more desperate as he looks for work. "I've lived here 10 years. I never had problems finding a job before," he said.

Vichith is not the only one in this predicament, according to employment specialists and social service workers.

Hispanics, Southeast Asians, Ethiopians and others who helped fuel the growth of the region's service economy as construction workers, janitors, clerks, hotel maids and dishwashers are now finding that there are fewer of these semi-skilled, relatively low-paying jobs.

Some have lost their jobs and can't get new work. Some who were laid off are looking for work as domestics or babysitters. Others have had their work hours cut. Sales have dropped sharply for some small, ethnically owned businesses.

To get by, some immigrants have relied on unemployment. Others are turning to family networks and private social service agencies.

In September 1989, the Virginia Employment Commission's job bank listed 4,900 openings for Northern Virginia. A year later, there were 1,430 jobs listed. The largest drop was in construction-related work. Clerical job listings also dropped significantly. "The poorest people always get hit hardest," said Joyce Schuman, director of the regional office.

In Maryland, the Department of Economic and Employment Development's statewide job bank had 3,170 listings in September, fewer than half the 6,883 listings at the same time last year.

The D.C. Department of Employment Services' regional listing had 10,213 jobs in October, compared with 12,127 in October 1989.

Employers once willing to take a chance and hire someone who couldn't speak much English now have their pick of overqualified applicants, said Susanne G. Eisner, director of the Arlington Employment Center.

Some businesses that do have jobs are offering less pay than before, Eisner said. "It's very competitive. Everyone is trying to economize," she said.

"I can find a $4-an-hour job," said Stephanos Hailemariam, 29, an Ethiopian immigrant living in Arlington. "But I have three children. It's very hard to find a good job."

The layoffs and cutbacks have contributed to a large increase in applications for public assistance throughout the region.

Arlington social workers have noticed a marked increase in the number of Hispanics applying for emergency food and rent subsidies and for welfare, said Dotty L. Dake, spokeswoman for the county Department of Human Services. Among undocumented workers, who are by law ineligible for assistance, "we understand there's real desperation," Dake said.

Applications for public assistance from immigrants in Montgomery County are up about 15 percent, said Lafrance Muldrow, director of income maintenance for the county Department of Social Services. "It's hard finding jobs, especially for people with language barriers," she said.

A nearly 10 percent drop in business in Washington area hotels this year pushed Hector Andrade and Oscar Espinosa out of their jobs.

Andrade, 27, and Espinosa, 22, both from El Salvador, had always been able to find work until this year. Both were laid off from a pricey downtown hotel this summer. Espinosa had been working there for three years, working his way up from dishwasher to busboy; Andrade had started as a janitor and was working as a dishwasher.

Both men have authorization to work in the United States, documentation that has been necessary for anyone who applies for a job since the immigration reform law of 1986 took effect.

In years past, "anyone with a work permit was snatched up immediately," said Jorge Rivera, an organizer with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, Local 25. "They would be asked to wash dishes for $4.50 an hour and say, "Stuff it, buddy,' and hold out for $6.50. And they would get it," Rivera said.

These days, the work authorization is no help. Andrade and Espinosa have sought work at six or seven hotels, small and large. Neither has found work and both are collecting unemployment.

"I'd like to find a hotel job but they say they've got no business," said Espinosa. "There's nothing," said Andrade.

For Vichith, the laid-off asbestos worker, the hotel industry also has offered few prospects.

One recent day, he went to an elegant downtown hotel to apply for a job. Through a picture window, smartly dressed patrons could be seen chatting in the hotel restaurant. Vichith and a Laotian friend, both dressed in dungarees, searched for the service entrance. Once inside, they were told briskly that the hotel was not hiring. "Come back the first of the year," a hotel employee said.

The downturn also has hit businesses owned by immigrants and refugees.

Ethiopian immigrant Amsalu Ayalaw had high hopes this year when he and several partners started Atlantic Cab Association, a District cab company.

Ayalaw, who still drives a cab part time, is disappointed and worried. "It used to be in the city there were a lot of conventions. Now, you don't see too many people taking cabs. I'm scared for the future," he said.

At the Eden Supermarket in Falls Church's Eden Center, a Vietnamese shopping mall, business is down 20 percent, said manager Herbert Tran. Many customers work in the area's ethnic restaurants. "They tell me they're not getting a lot of tips . . . that's why they don't spend," Tran said.

There is some bitterness at the recent turn of economic events and some immigrants suspect there is racial discrimination in the way layoffs are handled.

"Every time the situation gets bad, Hispanics are the first to go," said Felix Lazo, 45, a laid-off construction worker. "We are doing the toughest jobs. We clean windows in high-rises and handle heavy chemicals. When the situation comes to this, we are the first affected."

As the economic situation worsens, immigrants are turning to community and family networks for support.

At the Indochinese Community Center in the District, food parcels containing staples such as flour and rice are given to the jobless. "Please tell people we have more than 100 who are willing to work, to do anything," said counselor Somsanith Khamvongsa.

Andrade, the laid-off hotel worker, his wife and their daughter, a toddler, receive as much as $50 a week from family members in the area.

The loyalty of Teofilo Gonzales' children is the only bright spot in what is a disappointing time for the laid-off janitor. Gonzales, 60, lost his $5.50-an-hour job in Northern Virginia in September.

Three older children who no longer live at home pay the $567-a-month rent on their parents' two-bedroom Arlington apartment. Two younger children work part time and help with expenses. Gonzales' wife has been unable to work since a car accident last year.

Gonzales now works part time as a kitchen helper at a Rosslyn restaurant but worries that his age and poor English will hurt him as he looks for a full-time job. "My experience is not worth anything," he said through a translator.

A letter from his last employer praises him and says Gonzales' job was "deleted because of major cutbacks." But he has been told by former co-workers that someone else has been hired in his place. Gonzales suspects, but can't prove, that he was let go because of his age and that his replacement is being paid less than he was.

"I feel sad, but I'm not bitter. I still consider myself better off here," said Gonzales, a Bolivian immigrant. "I hope I can get something. I'm very resourceful."