In a small town in Kentucky, the candle factory was a lifeline for its workers

MAYFIELD, Ky. – Hispanic workers called the large square factory on the west side of town Las Velas, for the product it turned out: candles. Employees took home the soothing scents – lavender, vanilla – infused into their clothes. Some preferred it to the factory or nearby local chicken farms, where the work was back-breaking.

“I thanked God for this opportunity,” said Flor Almazan, a Guatemalan immigrant who was hired for $ 7.50 an hour three years ago to place wicks in small wax pots.

But last Friday, a tornado swarm that swept across six states reduced the factory to rubble, trapping dozens of workers, including Ms Almazan, who was buried alive for hours, with her pleas for help joining a chorus of despair. Eight people died and Mayfield Consumer Products, the company that operates the plant, comes under scrutiny in the aftermath of the storm.

Angry survivors questioned why supervisors hadn’t canceled the Friday night shift, given numerous warnings that tornadoes were likely to occur in the area. Some employees claimed supervisors threatened to fire workers if they left their shifts early when the tornadoes approached – a charge the company denied. On Thursday, some of the workers filed a complaint accusing the company of “blatant indifference” for refusing to let them return home sooner.

In the midst of acrimony, there is worry. The destruction didn’t just cost lives. It also stifled a safe workplace.

“A lot of people relied on it for a living,” said Jaime Massó, a pastor whose small church, Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, serves a thriving Hispanic community, including a growing number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. who came to do the modest work of Mayfield. “It leaves a big void in the community. Many of them worry about how they will make a living without Las Velas. They are scared. “

The plant was located just outside of downtown Mayfield, a working-class town of 10,000 people in rural western Kentucky. The community was once adorned with old Victorian storefronts, but was transformed by the storm into something like a post-war postcard. The octagonal clock tower was sheared from the imposing county courthouse. The orderly grid of the streets that surrounds it, drawn in the 1820s, now crosses piles of messy matches.

For about two decades, the Mayfield Candle Factory has been a showcase for domestic entrepreneurship. A local businesswoman named Mary Propes founded the company in 1998 in her garage, years after Mayfield’s flagship of the 20th century, men’s clothing, either disappeared or moved overseas. Aided by tariffs on cheap imports from China, the factory expanded to sell candles to the large US retail chain Bath & Body Works. At the time of the storm, it had 550 workers, making it one of the largest employers in the county.

More recently, however, it has struggled to find enough employees. Shortly before the tornado, the company was advertising workers for 10 to 12 hour shifts with mandatory overtime. On the night of the tornado, seven inmates from Graves County Jail were working at the factory under a labor agreement with the local government. (The inmates survived, but the jailer supervising them was killed.)

State and local authorities have praised the national low-tech manufacturer for the opportunities it has provided to dozens of local residents. But these opportunities had limits.

Wages started at $ 8 an hour, close to minimum wage, and weren’t much higher than those of many workers, a concession to the harsh realities of the global labor market.

For some in Mayfield, a job in a candle factory was one to hold onto until something better came along, or until the vicissitudes of life dictated other directions.

Nicole Byassee, 46, a convenience store manager, said she had worked at the candle factory three times over the years. She said it was a well run place. She made friends there and loved the way she could smell the scents of 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, while taking care of her sick stepfather at home. “I couldn’t afford to catch it on my own,” she said.

Most recently, Ms. Almazan was working the night shift, which pushed her wages up to $ 12.50 an hour, enough to support her two children. On Friday night, she said goodbye to them as she got ready for work. The sky was darkening above her and the rain was falling harder. She wasn’t worried. “Just rain,” she said to herself.

At around 5:30 p.m., half an hour after the start of his shift, sirens sounded on the production line. She rushed to a safe place, wrapped up neck and neck with around 100 colleagues, she said in Spanish. They huddled there nervously for a few minutes until the supervisors told them to return to their posts. Christmas was approaching. There were large orders to fill. But other storms were coming as well.

Elijah Johnson, 20, showed up for work at 6 p.m. He didn’t understand why the supervisors hadn’t canceled the night shift.

As cell phone warning pings rang out, he and others demanded to quit work. He said his supervisor told him he had already missed too much work and would lose his job if he left that evening.

“I kept saying, ‘Even with weather like this, we can’t go? And the supervisor kept saying, ‘No,’ Mr Johnson said. “When more people asked if they could leave, they were told that if they left there would be consequences. I was told that if I left, I would be fired.

Bob Ferguson, spokesman for Mayfield Consumer Products, called the accusation that workers would be sacked if they left as “totally bogus” and “ridiculous”.

He said that until about a year ago, employees who left their shifts earlier accumulated points and could be terminated if they accumulated enough. But as Covid-19 increased, he said, the company eliminated the point system and allowed workers to start and stop their shifts at will without penalty, which he said. that employees did regularly.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the sirens went off again. Ms Almazan turned to a worker next to her and asked if that could mean they would be leaving work sooner. The woman nodded.

Ms Almazan called her 11-year-old daughter, Cristina Pastor, and said, “Mija, I’m coming home. The little girl, hearing the wind slam the walls of her house, asked her if she was okay. “We’re fine,” she replied. “We are in a safe room. “

Then came a roar. The roof of the factory peeled off like a piece of paper. The walls collapsed, trapping the workers. Ms. Almazan twisted her face toward a hole in the bricks, trying to breathe. A woman next to her who had cried fell silent, then stiffened.

“I thought I was going to die soon too,” she said. Her husband and son had tried to call her. She could hear the phone ringing but couldn’t reach it through the rubble. His family rushed to the site, joining other people who had come to find their relatives.

Six hours later, someone moved the pile on top of her and a firefighter took her hand. The next morning, she woke up in a hospital in Paducah. His head felt like it was being hammered by a bag of hammers.

A few days after her ordeal, Ms Almazan said it was still painful to move her limbs. Sleep was hard to find. Every time she closed her eyes, she said, she was back under the rubble, hearing those around her screaming for help.

“What happened was very hard to forget,” she said.

Yet, Ms Almazan said, she wanted nothing more than to see Las Velas return to Mayfield and employ people like her again. If the factory reopened, she said she would be happy to come back.

“I was dependent on this job,” she said, “and not scared him.”

Tariro Mzezewa and Vimal Patel contributed reports. Susan C. beachy contributed research.

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