An unhappy Christmas present is coming for thousands of American workers: year-end layoffs. Economists look for unemployment figures (8.4 percent for November) to jump again when December layoffs are totaled. The reason: Employers are cutting back operations to reduce bulging inventories.

Republic Steel is the latest big employer to announce layoffs: It told 1,700 employees they are being furloughed for at least two weeks beginning Dec. 20. More than 6,000 of the company's 40,000 workers now are idled. And General Motors and other automakers are laying off thousands, including about 13,000 white-collar GM workers.

Most employers blame ''general business conditions'' and expect most laid-off workers to be recalled early in 1982. Unions are much less optimistic.

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