MAYFIELD, Ky. — Hispanic workers referred to the big, boxy factory on the west side of town as Las Velas, for the product it turned out: candles. Employees brought the calming fragrances — lavender, vanilla — home with them, imbued in their clothes. Some preferred it to the nearby local chicken plant or farms, where the work was backbreaking.
“I thanked God for the opportunity,” said Flor Almazan, a Guatemalan immigrant who was hired for $7.50 an hour three years ago to place wicks in little jars of wax.
But last Friday, a swarm of tornadoes that plowed across six states reduced the factory to rubble, trapping dozens of workers including Ms. Almazan, who was buried alive for hours, her cries for help joining a chorus of despair. Eight people died, and Mayfield Consumer Products, the company that operates the plant, is facing intense scrutiny in the storm’s aftermath.
Angry survivors have asked why supervisors did not cancel the Friday night shift, given the ample warnings that tornadoes were likely to spin up in the area. Some employees have claimed that supervisors threatened to fire workers if they left their shifts early as the tornadoes approached — an accusation the company denies. On Thursday, some of those workers filed a lawsuit accusing the company of “flagrant indifference” for refusing to let them go home early.
the jailer watching over them was killed.)
State and local officials have praised the low-tech domestic manufacturer for the opportunities it provided to scores of local residents. But those opportunities had limits.
Wages started at $8 per hour, close to minimum wage, and did not go much higher than that for many workers, a concession to the brutal realities of the global labor market.
For some in Mayfield, a candle factory job was the kind held on to until something better came along, or until life’s vicissitudes dictated other directions.
Nicole Byassee, 46, the manager of a convenience store, said she had done three stints at the candle factory over the years. She said it was a well-run place. She made friends there, and she liked how she could smell the fragrances from her house a mile away.
She quit her last job at the factory, as a quality inspector, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when she was caring for her ailing father-in-law at home. “I couldn’t afford to catch it myself,” she said.