Last year when Santa Clara County, Calif., faced a budget crisis and the threat of employee layoffs, county officials discovered that many of the county's employees were willing to reduce their work hours and take pay cuts to save their jobs.

Seventeen per cent of the county's work force of 10,000 voluntarily applied to reduce their hours. The budget crisis was averted just before schedules were changed but the majority of those who had applied wanted reduced hours anyway and the county granted their wishes.

"Unpaid time off is now viewed as an employee benefit," California State Sen. James R. Mills notes.

In view of such signals from the work force and the persistance of high rates of unemployment, a number of thinkers and planners are now urging programs for voluntary reduction of work hours as an added weapon in the arsenal to combat unemployment.

These proposals would transform work schedules in a variety of ways: shorter work weeks, months, years, or even shorter work lives.

One million jobs would be created if just 20 per cent of the work force volunteered to work 7 per cent fewer hours - that is, three hours less a week, for instance, or 20 days less a year, according to one manpower study group.

Around the country, not just in Santa Clara County, there are increasing signs that because of dramatic changes occurring in the lives they lead and the values they hold, a number of American workers would indeed be willing to make such a trade.

Mills is working up a proposal for work sharing in his state. "The worker who trades income for leisure," he says, "is simply buying that extra leisure from someone who has too much, such as welfare recipient."

Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) who conducted hearings last year into a range of alternatives to traditional work, is arguing for more part-time job opportunities as part of the government's welfare reform package.

Jules Sugarman, vice chairman of the Civil Service Commission, has proposed an especially offbeat approach for redistributing work: a sabbatical plan in which most American workers would put aside 6 per cent of their salaries in order to withdraw from their jobs one year out of every 10.

Faced with an army of 14 million unemployed, the government last turned to reduced hours and work sharing measures in the early 1930s, during the Depression. Then legislation that had a major impact on establishing the size and shape of jobs today was enacted.

With unemployment at around 7 per cent now thinkers and planners disagree over the need for such measures and over their probable impact. The arguments have not changed much in recent years, according to Janice Hedges of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The work week has always been reduced only as a dividend of greater productivity. "The theory is that you can reduce the week from 48 to 40 or below and get increases in productivity (because of less worker fatigue, better morale, less absenteeism, and the like), and the cost of goods and services won't go up," she said. "But in a reduction from 40 to, say, 32, there's not as likely to be an increase in th output per hour.

Some unions, such as the 1,500,000 member United Auto Workers, recently have settled for more time off instead of more pay. "More time off is one of the most salient demands of workers, now," said a UAW spokesman.

Other unions have fought for a cut in the work week without a reduction in pay. This would be inflationary, economists say, and also would quicken employers' efforts to replace expensive workers with more economical machinery.

"On the other hand, if you reduce hours as an alternative to laying people off," said the BLS' Hedges, "you are not increasing or decreasing efficiency. You're just redistributing earnings."

Proponents of work sharing to replace layoffs argue that it could ease the hardships especially on last-hired, first-fired minorities and women, and on blue collar workers who normally suffer more in a recession than managers and professionals.

The attitude of organized labor generally toward such variations from tradition has been one of suspicion, if not always outright opposition.

"Work sharing is not just work sharing," says John Zalusky, of the AFL-CIO. "It is also unemployment sharing."

He said that reducing the hours of all workers in order to avoid laying some off unless it is very short-term, merely "spreads the misery" and may also be a ploy by the employer to avoid the extra unemployment compensation costs connected with layoffs.

"It's better to pay the unemployment compensation to people who are laid off, and let them look for full-time work."

The AFL-CIO opposes the growing movement to create part-time work in place of full-time jobs because, Zalusky says, it is likely to lure more people into the job market at a time when jobs are scarce, and because it is likely to depress the wages of full-time workers.

Ron Wackett, of the retail clerks international, describes his organization as "torn between two lovers - the need for jobs for the army of the unemployed versus the need for more flexible work arrangements."

Members of that union are among those who traditionally have worked part-time, not for the benefit of the workers but to suit the employers' need to take advantage of peaks and valleys in business. Wackett called that situation "an albatross about the neck of those who want to make careers in the retail trades - full-time careers."

The union has proposed a plan for reducing hours for older workers who want to "phase out," Wackett said, but a plan "to suit the workers' needs and not the employers."

Some unions appear to be taking a closer look at some of the alternatives to traditional work. Patsy Fryman, of the 600,000 member Communication Workers of America, says the union already has taken steps in its collective bargaining to promote some flexible working hours in the form of flexitime, which allows employees to vary their starting and quitting times but does not reduce working hours. (CWA's membership includes telephone operators, repairmen, cashiers and other crafts.)

In order to study the effects of reduced hours, part-time work and "the full range of alternatives," Fryman said, CWA is sponsoring a trip by 14 trade union officials from six different unions next spring to European countries such as England, Germany and Switzerland where such measures are in wide use.

"Labor is not oblivious," Fryman said."But there are plenty of questions still to be answered. What happens to benefits, seniority, premium pay for overtime, all those things? These are the kinds of questions that cause labor to hesitate. We need more study."

Undieniably, innovations in the way jobs are packaged will involve certain costs. "But these costs may be preferable, notes George Washington University economist Sar Levitan, "when you compare them with the alternative costs of continued widespread forced idleness."

Interest in work sharing programs is "gradually accumulating a critical mass," according to Fred Best, of the National Commission for Manpower Policy. "I sense that the issue will get on the political agenda in the next year or so, and that there will be some moves in that direction in the next two years."