It takes a lot of hands to provide direct help for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But now, there is a shortage of those hands — the head of the agency that runs a statewide program called The Arc of Massachusetts is worried about staffing levels. Leo Sarkissian is executive director of the Arc. He spoke WGBH All Things Considered Anchor Barbara Howard. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Barbara Howard: You're talking about a workforce crisis. Is this something new?

Leo Sarkissian: No, it's grown over the last 20 years. Bottom line is, the salaries have not kept pace. Families and people with disabilities and providers cannot find the workers they need.

Howard: Does any of this have to do with TPS? I know a lot of Haitians are concerned about their jobs, many of them staffing hospitals and nursing homes. Would you even want to hire somebody if they're going to have to leave [the country]?

Sarkissian: Well, the providers basically recruit people overseas, and there are people stuck in other countries right now that they had already trained and hired that haven't been able to get over.

Howard: So that is affecting your staffing?

Sarkissian: Yeah, in the short-term. It's one factor. I'd say the major factor is the salary levels and the declining population of Massachusetts and the country, in terms of workers. As more and more people age, that's become a big issue. And the growth in people with disabilities.

Howard: So we're seeing more people with disabilities, and also more baby boomers getting older who need more care. At the same time, the population of those who would be able to provide the care has declined?

Sarkissian: Correct. And we're thinking ahead about that, because you have to. So we need both a short-term shot in the arm on this issue and a long-term plan.

Howard: What does it pay?

Sarkissian: The average is somewhere between $13.65 to $13.85 an hour.

Howard: It's just a little above the minimum wage.

Sarkissian: Correct.

Howard: And these are people who are responsible for the most vulnerable among us?

Sarkissian: Yes.

Howard: What's the profile of a person who does work hands-on with your clientele?

Sarkissian: There are many profiles. I'll give you one, which is maybe someone who entered the field because they love this work, but they love it so much they now — maybe they're a single parent raising two kids, a mother. Their kids might be teens, and they've seen their salaries stagnate, and now they also have a second job to make sure that ends meet.

On the flip side, there's the family that can't find someone. One family I know very well. The daughter is confined to a wheelchair, so she needs help with everything from eating to toileting to bathing. But the gaps in getting nursing or personal care attendant help have been so severe twice in the past three years, that the mother has worried about being able to continue to work. It's been that scary. Ninety-one percent of families cite how their hours have changed, and their work schedule gets interfered with. I talked to a woman the other day whose child is about 9 and medically complex. She's only been able to fill 15 hours of 90 approved hours of service.

Howard: She can't find help for her child?

Sarkissian: Correct, and she's got the funding available. And on the other side of it, there's a provider who told me their vacancy rate was getting up to 30 percent.

Howard: This must be frustrating for you. You've been in this business for how long?

Sarkissian: Easily four decades. I think back to when I was in my 20s, and how I worked as an assistant teacher in a clinical nursery before Chapter 766 was fully implemented, which is a special education law. And I remember feeling like, oh, not bad, I'm getting a salary, and I can work a couple of nights a week at a retail store, and I was able to really have my own place with a roommate comfortably, drive a car. Today, that would be impossible.

Howard: You think if there's such a shortage of workers that there would naturally be a pay increase, that the market would take care of that.

Sarkissian: And that's the issue — you nailed it. We're asking for market-related pricing.

Howard: Any sense of how the state is doing? It sounds like you're getting some cooperation up on Beacon Hill.

Sarkissian: It's been really positive. I think this is a hard one. We'd love to have a short-term, $17-an-hour wage starting next year.

Howard: From $13 up to $17 an hour. You think that would help close that gap?

Sarkissian: That's a big lift, but we think, who can argue with $17 an hour to start with, for jobs like these?

Howard: If that doesn't happen, then what's going to happen?

Sarkissian: I think people will be unsafe. People will be hurt. People are already being hurt because there's not enough staffing. There's bad people that sometimes get hired. People with disabilities who live on their own will hire people in desperation. It's life and death.

Howard: Well, thanks for coming in and talking with us.

Sarkissian: Thanks for taking on this issue.

Howard: That's Leo Sarkissian. He is executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, an organization working on behalf of those dealing with the intellectually and developmentally disabled. He says he worries about a labor crisis, with not enough people taking up the work of helping the disabled. This is WGBH’s All Things Considered.