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.