A Jan. 17 editorial "An Awful Idea" charging that Sen. Robert Dole's (R-Kan.) proposal to phase out the Social Security retirement earnings test will benefit the better-off elderly misses an important point. The legislation has the potential to ease the financial challenges faced by those who rely primarily on Social Security income to live.

Consider this issue as it relates to long-term care. Nursing facilities face serious shortages of staff, yet the demand for care is increasing exponentially. The long-term care staffing shortage is particularly intense among nurse assistants. Older workers make wonderful nurse assistants, because they are dependable, compassionate, and they bring a special understanding to their jobs that improves the quality of life enjoyed by elderly and disabled residents in nursing facilities. And older workers appreciate the income they earn.

For many older workers, Social Security is their primary income. Women receiving Social Security draw an average of $411 per month, and women -- especially older women -- fill most nurse assistant jobs. With the earnings ceiling in place, older workers are discouraged from working, and nursing facilities lose valued employees. Is the motivation to improve one's situation something this nation wants to discourage? I don't believe so. Lifting the earnings ceiling would help older workers and would offer them an incentive to remain in the work force where they are desperately needed.

PAUL WILLGING Executive Vice President American Health Care Association Washington

I agree in theory but not in practice with the editorial about the partial repeal of the Social Security earnings tests proposed by Sen. Dole.

Certainly, in theory, people should not receive retirement benefits when they are not retired. However, in practice as the test operates, it is a great -- even overwhelming -- disincentive to work for persons who have earnings of about 50 to 150 percent of the average wage.

Moreover, the earnings test has in essence already been eliminated under present law for persons born in 1943 and later. Such persons who work after the normal retirement age and have benefits withheld receive actuarially equivalent benefit adjustments later when they do fully retire (or at age 70, if earlier). And about the same thing occurs now for persons who first claim benefits before the normal retirement age (currently, 65) and then have some benefits withheld because of substantial work. ROBERT J. MYERS Silver Spring

The writer was chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, 1947-70, and executive director, National Commission on Social Security Reform, 1982-83.