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Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Candle Factory provided a lifeline for its employees in a small Kentucky town

The large, boxy factory on the west side of town was known as Las Velas by its Hispanic employees, who named it for the commodity that was produced there: candles. It is likely that employees took the relaxing scents — lavender and vanilla — home with them since they were embedded in their clothing. Some preferred it to the backbreaking employment in the adjacent poultry factory or farms, which they considered more pleasant.

However, on Friday, a swarm of storms that swept across six states destroyed the facility, trapping scores of employees, including Ms. Almazan, who was buried alive for hours despite her calls for rescue, which joined a chorus of sorrow. Eight people died as a result of the storm, and Mayfield Consumer Products, the business that owns and manages the factory, is under heavy examination in the wake of the disaster.

After receiving many tornado warnings, angry survivors have questioned why managers did not cancel the Friday night shift, despite the fact that tornadoes were expected to form in the vicinity. The corporation has denied the allegations that bosses threatened to fire employees if they left their jobs early as the storms neared – an allegation that several employees have made. The employees who filed the case on Thursday said that the corporation had shown “flagrant neglect” by refusing to allow them to leave work earlier in the day.

A few blocks outside of downtown Mayfield, a working-class community of 10,000 people in rural western Kentucky, was the location of the plant. Once adorned with historic Victorian stores, the neighbourhood was changed by the storm into something reminiscent of a postcard from the 1940s or ’50s. The majestic county courthouse’s octagonal clock tower was torn down in a freak accident. The neat grid of streets around it, which was set up in the 1820s, now slices through the matchstick piles of disarray that surround it.

For over two decades, Mayfield’s candle business served as a showcase for small-town entrepreneurialism at its best. A local entrepreneur called Mary Propes launched the firm in 1998 in her garage, some years after Mayfield’s defining 20th-century product, men’s apparel, had either faded out or been relocated to another country. Assisted by taxes on cheap imports from China, the firm expanded to become a supplier for big American retail chain Bath & Body Works, which sold candles to customers throughout the world. With 550 employees at the time of the storm, it was one of the county’s major employers and one of the most vulnerable.

More lately, though, the company has failed to recruit enough personnel. Several weeks before the storm struck, the firm was advertising for employees to perform 10- to 12-hour hours with the option of earning obligatory overtime. Seven convicts from the Graves County jail were working at the plant on the night of the storm as part of a labour deal with the local authorities at the time of the tornado.

Starting at $8 per hour, wages were close to the federal minimum wage and did not rise much beyond that for many employees, a concession to the harsh realities of a global labour market.

The night shift had just been added to Ms. Almazan’s schedule, increasing her compensation to $12.50 an hour, which was sufficient to support her two children. She said her goodbyes to them on Friday night as she prepared to go to work the next day. The sky above her was becoming darker, and the rain was becoming more intense. She was unconcerned about anything. “It’s only rain,” she reassured herself.

He said that, until about a year ago, workers who left their shift early would accrue points, and if they accrued enough points, they would be dismissed from their jobs. However, as Covid-19 grew in popularity, he claims, the firm scrapped the points system and let staff to start and finish their shifts whenever they wanted without punishment, which he claims they did on a daily basis.

Approximately six hours later, someone lifted the pile of wood above her, and a firefighter grasped her hand in his. She awoke the following morning in a Paducah hospital, where she had been admitted the night before. Her head felt like it was being battered by a sack full of hammers, and she couldn’t sleep.

Ms. Almazan added that even days after her trauma, it was still difficult for her to move her limbs. It was difficult to get any sleep. She said that every time she closed her eyes, she was transported back to the wreckage, where she could hear others around her beg for assistance.

Ms. Almazan, on the other hand, expressed her desire for nothing more than to see Las Velas return to Mayfield and hire individuals like herself once again. She said that she would happily return if the plant were to reopen.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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