Candle factory worker Andrea Miranda described to MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart how she thought she was going to die when a tornado ripped through Mayfield, Kentucky, last week. “What I remember is when the building moved left, right, and boom,” she said. When a wall collapsed on top of her, she was trapped for hours. At least eight workers at the factory were killed.
But that perhaps didn’t have to happen. A disturbing report says that Mayfield Consumer Products management forbade workers from leaving the factory as the storm approached, warning “that they would be fired if they left their shifts early,” NBC News reported. Workers had been pleading “for hours,” the report said.
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CNN reports that the Mayfield Consumer Products plant had been working around the clock to keep up with Christmas demand, and is a major “supplier for brands including Bath & Body Works,” WFPL said.
“Supervisors and team leaders told employees that leaving would probably jeopardize their jobs, the employees said,” NBC News reported. “About 15 people asked to go home during the night shift shortly after the first emergency alarm sounded outside the facility, said another employee, Haley Conder, 29.” That worker told NBC News that there was a window of as much as four hours where workers could have been allowed to leave to shelter at home.
“If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired,” worker McKayla Emery said he heard one manager tell four workers. She talked to NBC News from the hospital. “I heard that with my own ears.”
WFPL further notes Mayfield Consumer Products’ past history of safety violations—including more than $16,000 in Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines—and labor practices exploiting vulnerable workers. The company “had contracts with at least two jails to bring incarcerated people to work in the factory.” The guard who was overseeing a number of incarcerated people working that night was killed in the storm.
The report also said that the company recruited workers from Puerto Rico, firing some for physical limitations. Miranda during her interview noted that she’d left Puerto Rico for Kentucky two years ago to work.
“Many of these people don’t speak English. My client didn’t speak English,” attorney John Caudill told WFPL. He represented a number of Puerto Rican workers in an unsuccessful 2019 lawsuit against the company. “These are people who come from economically challenged backgrounds that are willing to move to Kentucky from Puerto Rico for jobs paying $10, $12 an hour.”
The company is denying workers’ claims that they were threatened with firing if they went home that evening. “It’s absolutely untrue,” spokesperson Bob Ferguson told NBC News. “We’ve had a policy in place since Covid began. Employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.” CEO Troy Propes claimed the workers, “some who have worked with us for many years, are cherished,” The Guardian reported.
But workers aren’t exactly seeing it that way. While Ivy Williams retired from Mayfield Consumer Products last October, his wife Janine remained there. WFPL reports that Janine had been told by coworkers that if she missed a shift, “she wouldn’t get another one for the remainder of the holiday season, although a spokesperson for the company denies this.” She was among those killed at the factory. “I just wish they had called and said, ‘No one come in ’til it’s over, ’til we see what’s going on. ‘Til it’s passed over,’” he told WFPL.
“At this point we’re just looking at information, and the threshold question is was this an unavoidable tragedy?” Caudill told WFPL. “All other questions fall from there. And we don’t have the answers to those questions 48 hours in.”