A article yesterday said the Reagan administration's affirmative-action policy seeks relief for people who applied for jobs and were turned down because of race, sex or national origin. The policy is more complex: it also extends relief to qualified individuals who can show they were discouraged from even applying for employment because of their knowledge of an employer's unlawful discrimination.

The Justice Department sued the city of San Francisco yesterday, charging that the fire department discriminates against blacks, Hispanics and Asians in hiring.

The suit said the number of minorities in the fire department was not "reflective of their availability in the relevant labor market." In August 1983, there were 36 Asians, 80 blacks and 88 Hispanics among the city's 1,472 firefighters, the suit said. However, the San Francisco civilian labor force is 21.7 percent Asian, 12.7 percent black and 12.3 percent Hispanic.

Shortly before the suit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, William Bradford Reynolds, gave a speech in Washington praising the Supreme Court's June decision holding that the jobs of black firefighters in Memphis who were hired as a result of affirmative action policies should not be spared during layoffs when white firefighters with more seniority were laid off.

Reynolds also praised the court's ruling that the law permits remedies only to individuals who can prove they are "actual victims" of illegal discrimination, rather than to groups of disadvantaged minorities who may not have suffered directly in a particular job situation.

The Supreme Court ruled that the black firefighters in Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts et al were not actual victims of discrimination.

When asked who the victims of discrimination were in the San Francisco firefighters case, Justice Department spokesman John V. Wilson said they were the qualified minority applicants who were turned down for jobs in the department.

"There is no relief for someone who had not applied," Wilson said. "Someone who had not applied could not be identified as a victim."

In his speech before the National Foundation for the Study of Equal Employment Policy, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds praised the Reagan administration's refusal to use quotas in affirmative action cases. Spokesman Wilson said that the Justice Department's suit in San Francisco was not based on quotas -- even though the number of minorities in the department was measured against the percentage of minorities in the civilian labor force -- because the Justice Department was not telling the fire department that it had to hire a certain number of minorities each year until a goal was attained.

"We're saying, if you hire on a nondiscriminatory basis, you'll end up with a fire department that reflects the composition of the city's labor force," Wilson said. "If it does not, the burden is on the fire department to show why it does not."

The suit said San Francisco officials violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by not hiring blacks, Hispanics and Asians on an equal basis with whites. The suit was the 46th employment discrimination suit filed by the Reagan administration, Wilson said, and the 23rd filed against a fire department since the 1964 law went into effect.

The suit asked the court to issue injunctions prohibiting officials from engaging in any discriminatory employment practice and to require officials to implement a recruitment program designed to encourage qualified minorities to apply for firefighter jobs. The suit asked the court to order job offers, retroactive seniority and back pay to minority applicants who were rejected on the basis of race or national origin. The suit also charged that tests administered to job applicants unfairly favored whites over minorities.

Reynolds could not be reached for comment yesterday.