Unemployment in Maryland suffered its worst October in 10 years, state officials said yesterday, while the District of Columbia's severe unemployment lessened slightly and Virginia remained healthy.

Maryland's unemployment rate currently stands at 7.4 percent, the District's is 9.5 and northern Virginia's is 3.7.

It was the 11th consecutive month the jobless rate has risen in Maryland, signaling a dramatic decline in the state's fortunes.

"We are at grim levels of unemployment," said Pat Arnold, director of research for the Maryland Employment Security Administration. He said the state was "seeing a larger share of white-collar workers unemployed and a larger share of whites than in previous downturns." Specific breakdowns describing the unemployed will come in two to three weeks, he said.

The rising unemployment has area unemployment and welfare offices, temporary help firms and collection agencies bracing for extra business.

"We've been flooded by applicants of the highest quality," said Nelson Kline, staffing coordinator for Staff Builders, an agency with offices throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District. "I just sent an accountant out to move furniture for $4 an hour."

In Maryland, officials said the state lost 15,000 jobs in October, putting a total of 158,679 people out of work in a statewide civilian workforce of 2.1 million people.

Although Maryland traditionally has more people working than the national average, the latest figures are the worst since February 1977, when unemployment hit 7.7 percent.

Only a year ago, the situation was vastly different. The unemployment rate was 6.1 percent and the state gained 12,000 jobs in October.

The District of Columbia showed slight improvement, but officials say the figures are misleading. September's 9.5 percent unemployment rate, the latest figures available, compares with 10.1 percent in August. This decrease was caused by several thousand District students returning to classrooms, which reduced the number of workers seeking jobs.

The current rate is 2 percentage points worse than in September of 1980 and it is still a full percentage point above the national average of 8.4.

The city said there were fewer jobs available during September in the government, printing and publishing, construction and wholesale and retail trade. The only industry which reported an increase in jobs was the service category, which employed 2,500 more hotel workers, attorneys, lobbyists and the like.

In Virginia the situation is comparatively rosy. The state's relatively stable base of non-manufacturing jobs has lowered joblessness in the Washington suburbs to 3.7 percent, about 21,241 people. The state has had problems in the construction industry, but not in the last year. In fact, northern Virginia experienced growth in many job areas.

Hiring in construction, wholesale and retail trade, finance, insurance, real estate and the service industries increased in Virginia over the last year, including a growth of 1,700 federal jobs. Jerry Harrison, a labor market research analyst with the Virginia Employment Commission, called job growth in Northern Virginia, "phenomenal . . . new jobs and expansions are keeping up with other turnovers."

In the District and Maryland, however, the economic situation remains bleak for many.

The two dozen Northwest Washington residents waiting to apply for unemployment compensation at the city's Cardozo-Shaw office late Friday were illustrative of the area's job plight.

"This is the third day that I've been down here and when I came today at 7 a.m., there was a line of 80 people outside," said a woman in her 30s, a former office manager.

Another woman, who said she had been without work nearly a year because her former employer went bankrupt, complained about trying to find a job during the holiday season.

"Temporary work as clerks -- that's all there is. No one is leaving their jobs now, because they are getting Christmas bonuses. For us without jobs it's bad news."

Maryland's 24 unemployment offices have been clogged with claims, causing half-day waits for some applicants. Some 42,000 Marylanders, or about one-fourth of those out of work, are now receiving unemployment checks ranging from $25 to $141 a week.

"Half of my workers have volunteered to come in without pay Saturday to get the unemployment checks out," said Rebecca Tucker, manager of Maryland's East Point Employment Security office. She said 400 to 500 people flock to the east Baltimore County office each Monday, some arriving an hour before the doors open at 7 a.m.

"The lines on Mondays for the last month already extend out the building and down the parking lot for half a block. The stress and pressure here is tremendous."

Her office also offers a job registration service, but there were only 30 job openings in November, Tucker said, compared to the usual 110 listings.

Even if the economy improves, state officials say the current job losses are permanent.

"We're talking about workers being out of a career, not just a job," said the Maryland Employment Security Administration's Arnold. "If an autoworker or steelworker gets work again, it's not going to be in those industries."

In Maryland, the biggest decline last month was in 5,300 retail jobs. The federal government, which fired or laid off 3,100 Marylanders in October, was next. Overall, Arnold said, losses in manufacturing, construction and government jobs have rocked the Maryland economy this year.

The jobless rate is forcing more utility, housing, medical and department store bills to be turned over to collection agencies, said Lee Snyder, president of the Credit Adjustment Bureau of Baltimore.

"But our area's not hurting as bad as the West Coast and the industrial states," said Snyder, who attended a nationwide conference of the American Collectors Association, a trade group, this week in Minneapolis. "We have felt the slowdown, but it's not a real hurt here."

Added William Rutsch, president of Creditor Claims of America in Silver Spring and director of a regional trade group, "We're finding it much harder to collect. We're dealing with a jaded public who want the bills to go away."

Kline of the areawide temporary office agency said he found that all kinds of applicants are seeking work. "We're finding lawyers willing to go out and do general office work, filing," he said. "Especially people fresh out of school who can't get jobs. I'm trying to spread the jobs around, but this is the worst month for openings. People are desperate for money. Their rent is due and Christmas is coming."