Putnam School Custodian Plays To Beat The COVID Blues

Dan McGinley of Local 1303-087 (Putnam Board of Education) is a school custodian whose love of blues music provides the perfect thematic accompaniment for the age of COVID-19.

If nothing else, the pandemic has brought public service workers like McGinley closer to a spiritual and physical crossroads worthy of a Robert Johnson song.

“The hardest part is emotional,” McGinley responded haltingly when asked about the impact of the novel coronavirus. “We see the kids come in with their little masks every day. We’re doing everything in our power to keep them safe. And we don’t know if it’s enough.

“You feel the stress of the community,” he added. “Everyone is going through hell right now.”

McGinley, who works second shift at Putnam Elementary School, has been on the job 11 years. He came to his current job entirely by coincidence after spending 10 years in environmental science, performing tasks such as testing groundwater and mapping wetlands.

When his former employer, VHB Inc. in Middletown, served him with a pink slip at the height of the Great Recession of 2008, McGinley scoured the want ads and saw that the Putnam school system was hiring. “There were close to 500 applicants for the job,” the University of Rhode Island graduate recalled. “It was like hitting the lottery when I got hired. There was no work at the time.”

McGinley cherishes his AFSCME membership. “What would our paycheck be without the union?” he asked rhetorically. “It would be close to minimum [wage]. It’s unbelievable how little [custodians] make without a good union like ours.”

Married and the father of a college-age daughter, McGinley exemplifies the dedication of Council 4-represented custodians who see themselves as germ warriors on the front lines of school safety and health.

“Cleaning sounds like the simplest most basic thing. Tidying your space up is almost like a meditation,” he reflected. “You get into the job. You take pride in your work. It’s almost like a Zen thing.”

The Ashford resident also relishes working in the company of young people. “The kids are amazing. They crack me up. I can relate to them,” he said.

This passion for public service and love of the school environment is what makes COVID-19 even more challenging for McGinley and his fellow union members.  (The Local represents paraprofessionals, custodians and food service employees.)

Likening COVID-19 “an invisible invader,” McGinley pointed out. “We can’t see it, but hopefully we can stop it.”

Compounding the uncertainty around a pandemic is the district’s foray into privatization. Earlier this summer, School Superintendent Dan Sullivan entered into an outsourcing agreement with ABM Cleaning Maintenances Services, a Massachusetts-based company. The Putnam Board of Education approved the questionable deal despite a complete lack of communication with Local 1303-087 and Council 4.

The 16 custodians remain in the bargaining unit, but ABM is attempting to downgrade their health insurance and retirement benefits. Council 4 Staff Representative Tricia Santos filed a Municipal Prohibited Practice (MPP) complaint against the Superintendent and the school board. The State Board of Labor Relations will soon hold a formal hearing.

While it’s dispiriting to see the school district playing havoc with their lives, McGinley is confident of a positive outcome: “Without the union, we would have no say and no control [over outsourcing]. I don’t know where we would be without AFSCME. We would have no leverage.”

McGinley is an avid blues guitarist whose creative side helps him navigate the choppy waters of the pandemic and privatization. Merging his musical passion with his love of cinema, McGinley created a short indie film called Blues Legend that is available on Amazon Prime. It’s about an alcoholic blues player in New Orleans who makes a deal with the devil to see if there’s an afterlife.

The project took nearly 5 years to complete. McGinley recruited 30 friends, associates and even strangers, including a woman who practices voodoo and aspiring musicians eager to contribute to a soundtrack, to make the movie on a shoestring budget.

“I’m a big movie buff. I thought, why not see if I can make a movie for next to nothing and have a good time. I think we pulled it off. The soundtrack is amazing,” McGinley said.

Blues Legend won three music soundtrack awards and received consideration for similar honors at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

The passion McGinley has for cleaning school buildings, especially during a pandemic, mirrors his love of the blues. Listening to John Lee Hooker or Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, he says that “something goes right to my soul. I’ll hear something I never heard before, and I’ll almost cry.”