White public employees who have been laid off despite their higher seniority to preserve jobs for minority workers may become eligible for up to one year's pay under a federal court decision in New Jersey.
Labor lawyers suggest that the decision, which could set a nationwide precedent, might involve ''millions of dollars.''
United States District Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin in Newark, N.J., upheld ''reverse discrimination,'' the preferential treatment of blacks and other minorities, in a suit brought by firefighters and police who were laid off in 12 northern New Jersey cities during a period of budget cutbacks.
At the same time, Judge Sarokin ruled that ''innocents'' with higher seniority who lost jobs should be compensated from federal funds.
The decision is being reviewed widely by lawyers and public-employee unions across the country and also within the Reagan administration.
The administration has quietly opposed preferential layoff plans such as those in New Jersey. It argued that employment moves that disregard seniority could escalate the prejudice that they seek to relieve.
Judge Sarokin went beyond other decisions that supported minority workers denied jobs in the past because of race.
The judge ordered compensatory payments of up to one year's salary to ''innocent'' whites required to sacrifice jobs in cities having to comply with federal programs designed to protect more recently hired minority workers.
Under his decision, white employees who lose jobs are to be paid - from federal funds - for time lost before they find new jobs, or for one year.
The use of federal money was ordered because the layoffs of higher-seniority whites was forced on municipalities by federal affirmative-action policies that require the maintenance of fixed ratios of white and minority workers.
A number of similar cases are pending. At least two federal courts have held that cities facing public-employee layoffs can use standards other than seniority in determining which employees are to be let go.
One case involving Memphis fire-fighters is before the Supreme Court and a decision is expected before it recesses for the summer.
The compensation issue has not come up in Memphis or other cases. It surfaced for the first time in the New Jersey challenge.
Judge Sarokin declared in his decision that the country ''owes a debt to its minority citizens to compensate them (with jobs) for generations of degradation and deprivation.''
Blacks and members of other minority groups were not hired fairly until recent years and therefore have had no chance to accumulate seniority on the job , Judge Sarokin said.
When massive layoffs were necessary in 12 New Jersey cities, ''certain firefighters and police officers with greater seniority (were) required to forfeit their positions'' because, he said, to do otherwise would have eradicated civil rights advances.
The judge ordered that the percentage of minority employees on payroll must remain the same after layoffs as before them, to protect affirmative-action programs. He ruled that civil service and union contract seniority clauses determining who shall stay on the job cannot be permitted.
''We cannot and should not retreat from our commmitment to right the wrongs of the past,'' he said. ''To permit layoffs based solely on seniority denies these principles.''
At the same time, he said, it would be wrong not to compensate those higher-seniority whites ''forced to make an involuntary contribution to a cause not their own, no matter how worthy that cause might be.''
Likening the situation of those forced to give up jobs to that of private property owners whose property is taken over for public purposes, Judge Sarokin ordered compensation for senior employees who lose their job rights.