YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) _ Just over a year ago pin-striped investment bankers from Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. were zipping in and out of the tiny town of Omak, helping employees finance a $50 million buyout of their lumber mill.

Now that the once cocksure investment house has filed for bankruptcy protection, the workers who become owners and saved their jobs through Drexel's skills expressed sympathy for for the firm's plight.

''They were really a human-oriented company with us,'' Lloyd Groomes, head of the local Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union, said Wednesday. ''They got on board right at the first and joined in with us.''

The deal to purchase Omak Wood Products Inc. was financed by junk bonds and loans to be repaid from future earnings. The workers made no down payment and the plant itself was put up for security.

At the time, Drexel touted the deal as the first in which workers bought a healthy company using a significant amount of high-yield, high-risk junk bonds for financing. The firm promoted junk bonds as a way to provide financing for ventures like employee buyouts that traditionally have had a hard time getting funding through banks or the stock market.

Ironically, Drexel's filing for protection under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy laws on Tuesday was the result of a cash shortage triggered largely by a sharp drop in value of its own holdings of junk bonds.

Drexel's filing may put a temporary hold on future debt-financed employee buyouts like the one at Omak, one banking analyst predicted.

''This has to have a chilling effect in the short term,'' said Jay Tejera of Dain Bosworth Inc. in Seattle. ''But you won't see the pendulum swing all the way back to where equity is preferential and leveraged capital is impossible to find.''

The employee buyout in December 1988 capped a six-month blitz in which Drexel, which pioneered the use of junk bonds to finance takeovers and buyouts, convinced British financier Sir James Goldsmith that the 630 employees of Omak Wood Products were serious buyers. Goldsmith had acquired the mill as part of his 1985 takeover of Crown Zellerbach Co.

Drexel provided a $50 million bridge loan to finance the deal until the employees could obtain permanent funding. It also provided the business expertise mill workers lacked.

Pat Flanagan, a vice president of the investment bank, still serves on the mill's board of directors, Groomes said.

Without the help of Drexel, the Omak plant would have been sold by Goldsmith to one of several corporations interested in the profitable company, Groomes said.

The mill, the largest employer in the town of 4,000 located 150 miles north of Yakima, had been sold three times to out-of-town owners in the previous 32 years. Each sale resulted in job cuts at the plant, which once had 1,200 employees, Groomes said.

When workers got word in the summer of 1988 that another sale was coming, they organized and Groomes contacted Drexel, asking for help in financing an employee buyout.

Soon, Drexel employees were jetting into Spokane and driving the 150 miles to Omak, he said.

''They gave Sir James a (letter) to assure him we wasn't whistling in the dark,'' Groomes said. ''They said they'd underwrite $35 million before he considered us a serious bidder.''

Drexel eventually put up the $35 million purchase price, plus nearly $15 million in operating expenses. That money carried the employees until they were able to secure permanent bank financing just three months ago, said Bill Kenny, human resource manager at the mill.

''We're saddened by (their) current financial status,'' Kenny said. ''We fully realize that we as an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) would not be here without the help of Drexel Burnham.''

''We're doing real well, above our expectations,'' Groomes said of the company.

Finding someone to do similar employee buyouts in the future may be difficult, Tejera said.

''A lot of those deals are done already,'' he said. ''You don't have a backlog of deals to do.''

But the technique remains sound, especially in mature businesses that generate cash and don't have high research and development and capital costs, he said.

Tejera predicted that insurance companies, pension funds and mid-sized regional banks would step into the void left by Drexel.