The pain of being jobless hits Thomas M. Kelly hardest each day at 5 a.m.

"You wake up at that hour automatically, because you have for so many years, and there's nowhere to go," said Kelly, 38, a plumber from Frederick, Md.

Yesterday, though, he did have a place to go: the unemployment line.

On the day District officials released the latest measures of the Washington area's deepening recession, Kelly was standing at the head of the queue forming outside the city's Employment Services Office at 4210 Kansas Ave. NW.

"I didn't want to go on unemployment unless I had to. I've been looking around for a job, but there's nothing out there right now," Kelly said at 6:30 a.m., his words forming gray clouds in the 25-degree darkness. "Plumbing work in the District has just about dried up. It's the worst I've seen it in 17 years."

In the Washington area, the unemployment rolls grew by 34,000 in 1990, according to figures released yesterday by the D.C. Department of Employment Services. The area's unemployment rate rose to 4 percent in December, up from 2.4 percent in December 1989.

But for people such as Kelly -- the faces of the local recession -- the numbers that mattered yesterday were their places in line and the dollars they needed to get through the month.

"The first thing that gets paid is my mortgage," said Kelly, who wasn't included in the December figures because he lost his job with a plumbing company in January. "I just bought a house a year and a half ago. I waited over 15 years, and I'm not going to lose my house. After that comes food, and everything else will have to wait."

District resident Maria Marquez, 22, standing 14th in line, worried about how she was going to continue sending money to her four children in Guatemala. Marquez said she has been looking for work since she lost her restaurant job Dec. 31.

Marquez said in Spanish that she would continue looking for a job here rather than go back to her country, because "to return empty-handed is worth nothing."

Most people waited in the line silently, softly shuffling their feet to stay warm or bouncing to the private sound of a portable stereo. Some wore natty trenchcoats; others had no gloves. A few joked and laughed to pass the time and mask their frustration.

"It's Mr. Blanket," a woman called out with a smile when District resident William Johnson, 24, stepped into line, wrapped in a blanket to ward off the chill.

Johnson, a regular in the line since he was laid off by a video rental store a month ago, started to entertain the crowd as the morning grew lighter.

"Oh, doesn't she look beautiful today," he said, pointing out a city employee preparing to open the office at 7:30. "She's an 'office enumeration technician.' That means she takes names and hands out numbers. Look, what a pretty white blouse and gold earrings, all paid for by the D.C. government."

But more quietly he said, "You have to make light of it or you go crazy . . . . I don't want to go through this."

Of most concern is the wait for benefits. "It's the first of the month, and I have no money for rent or electricity or the phone bill," Johnson said, adding that he was angry because "you send out re'sume's and applications and no one has jobs . . . . I'm really going nuts."

Like others, Johnson said he lined up an hour before the office opened because he had been turned away in the past and because he had been told the office could process only a limited number of applications and would start turning people away by about 11 a.m. Some days in early January, more than 100 people were standing in line by 7 a.m.

That policy has been changed, D.C. officials said this week. New unemployment claims applications will be accepted from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the city's four offices, with no quota or cutoff, said spokesman Larry Brown.

The city managed this by retraining 10 "manpower development specialists," or job counselors, to take claims and by extending their workday to get the paperwork done.

So people need not line up early in the morning, Brown said. And word seems to be spreading: Only 23 people were waiting when the doors of the Kansas Avenue office opened at 7:30.

But others stood in line because they misunderstood the system. Kelly said he drove an hour from Frederick to apply in the District because the city has higher benefits than Maryland. But he needn't have bothered: Because he worked in the District, he will receive District benefits wherever he applies.

That good news was little comfort. Kelly, who supports a wife and three children, said he spends most days looking for work. So it was hard a few days ago when he stayed home for the first time, and his 15-year-old son asked why.

"My wife had to tell him his dad was unemployed."