Pat Holt was in no mood to mince words this afternoon. "As a loyal employe, I think it's awful. This shouldn't have happened. It's a useless, unreasonable exercise. It's unfair."

Holt, an 11-year veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Dallas, was one of the tens of thousands of federal workers sent home today while the politicians in Washington continued their budget struggles. No one knew at the time whether this was more than a one-day crisis.

"We've had scares before, but I didn't think this would happen," Holt said.

The word came swiftly to Dallas and other federal regional centers this morning--no trickle-down today. Agriculture was gone at noon. So was the General Services Administration and some of the Commerce Department. EPA dismissed its people about 1 p.m. CST, and the corridors in the building that doubles as the home of TV's J. R. Ewing were a jumble of gallows humor, confusion and bitterness.

"No comment, except phooey," said one woman as she headed for the elevator. "I support myself. Without pay, it's kind of rough."

Another woman carried a box filled with plants onto the elevator. "I don't know when I'll be back," she said. "I don't want my plants to die."

The same scenes were played out at other regional centers across the country as employes existed on rumor and gossip until the official word came from on high: Go home.

Some federal employes came to work today expecting to get the word. In New York, for example, the employes of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service reported in only to prepare to shut down their office. Others came to work in a state of blissful ignorance.

"I didn't pay any attention to it all weekend," said June Mizell, who works for the Internal Revenue Service in Dallas. "I saw it in the papers this morning, but to be perfectly honest, I didn't give it much thought. At 5:30 in the morning, most people aren't that awake."

By midafternoon, the federal building in downtown Dallas had taken on the eerieness of a deserted warehouse. The drab corridors were lifeless, and behind unlocked doors, the offices were only partly lighted.

On the seventh floor, the Agriculture Department's regional offices looked as if people had simply gotten up and left. Desks were cluttered, doors were open, almost no one was home. Some of those who were had just started an urgent meeting to find out what would happen to the food-stamp program, which is administered primarily by the states.

"The states can get by without us for a few days," said Judy Snow, an information officer for the Food and Nutrition Service.

About 30,000 people work for the federal government in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, about 12,000 of them either Postal Service employes or in military jobs. They were not threatened today because their jobs were considered essential, but among those who were not considered essential, confusion was the only common denominator.

At the snack bar in the federal building, federal employes traded rumors over their lunch hour. No one seemed to know what "nonessential" employment meant, and when the ax fell today it came with no precision.

EPA in Dallas sent home everyone except those involved in cleaning up chemical waste dumps and those who are assigned to emergency oil or chemical spills.

The Dallas regional office of the Education Department shut down but the Health and Human Services Department, perhaps befitting its reputation for being cumbersome and bureaucratic, did not. At HHS, plans were put into motion that would have closed down operations by Wednesday night.

"By the nature of our mission, we would respond a little more slowly than others," said John A. Daeley, HHS regional director.

HHS called back employes who were traveling and warned those on annual leave they might want to end their vacations.

"We've tried to do things in an orderly way, so that we could respond to whatever situation should arise--even staying on the job," Daeley said.

In Los Angeles, the phone at the Civil Aeronautics Board was answered by a recording that said the offices were closed "due to the federal budget impact." A woman at the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles apologized for not being more helpful. "We're short-staffed today," she said.

In Dallas, the few employes left at the Education Department office were told not to answer the phones. Breaking bureaucratic tradition, they ignored the orders.

Staff writer Jay Mathews and special correspondents Katharine Macdonald and Carin Pratt contributed to this report.