A lawsuit accusing Nordstrom Inc. of failing to pay employees for thousands of hours of work outside their normal schedules will be certified as a class action, a union lawyer said.

The case in King County Superior Court could involve millions of dollars of liability for the retail chain, which employs about 30,000 people at 62 outlets in seven states, including Utah. Another is set to open in April near Chicago.Nordstrom, which has expanded rapidly in recent years on a strong reputation for customer service, cut earnings by $15 million in the last quarter of 1989 to establish a reserve for unpaid-compensation claims.

About $4 million has been paid to about 3,000 out-of-state workers who accepted settlement offers based on length of service or submitted details of work for which they said they were not paid, said Dave Marriott, a Nordstrom spokesman.

Nordstrom executives still believe the reserve is adequate, Marriott said.

The suit filed by 18 individuals and joined by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1001 initially sought more than $300 million in back pay for as many as 300,000 people.

Certification of the union as representative for those covered by the class action remains pending.

"We think it'll be over 100,000" past and present employees covered by the suit, Jim Webster, a union attorney, said.

Jim Robart, a lawyer for Nordstrom, said he expected the number would be "significantly less than 100,000."

More than 80 percent of those potentially affected by the suit are in Washington, Oregon and California. The rest are in Alaska, Utah, Montana, Virginia and New Jersey.