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Labor practices of a Kentucky candle factory come under scrutiny after tornado deaths

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To Kentucky now, where eight people died after a candle factory in Mayfield collapsed during Friday night's tornado. Since then, employees have said managers threatened them with firing if they left their shift early. Jared Bennett of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found the factory has a history of labor issues.

JARED BENNETT, BYLINE: Ivy Williams says his wife Janine was working long hours at the candle factory in Mayfield to meet demands during the holiday season. On Friday night, she called Williams before the storm hit. He was willing to leave their house and drive more than half an hour to pick her up.

IVY WILLIAMS: Because I'm very scared of storms. And I would have came and got her.

BENNETT: But the call dropped before they could finish the conversation. His wife was one of eight people who died at the factory during the tornado. Williams says his wife went to work that night because co-workers had told her if she missed a shift during the holiday rush, she might not get another one for weeks. Her husband says she wanted to make some extra money to give her grandkids - all 19 of them - a special Christmas.

WILLIAMS: 'Cause she loved each and every one of them. They loved their granny.

BENNETT: Mayfield Consumer Products has become the focal point for many who question whether the company did all it could to protect its workers. Speaking today, Governor Andy Beshear said he didn't have reason to think the factory did anything wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY BESHEAR: I hope that they did everything right. If they didn't, then that information will come out.

BENNETT: Bob Ferguson, a PR specialist representing the company, insists workers were free to leave that night or call out of their shift if they felt unsafe without retribution. He says workers gathered in a designated safe area, and the factory did regular drills to prepare.

BOB FERGUSON: I think that's why, so miraculously, 102 employees survived this awful, unprecedented storm.

BENNETT: But public records do show the factory has a history of worker safety violations in the years preceding the storm. Federal safety records show that in 2020, the factory had an injury rate that exceeds the industry average. The company was fined more than $16,000 for workplace safety issues in 2019. In recent years, it has relied in part on labor from incarcerated people and recruits from Puerto Rico. In 2019, attorney John Caudill filed suit for a man who said Mayfield Products brought him and others to Kentucky and fired him because he was overweight.

JOHN CAUDILL: These are people that come from economically challenged backgrounds that are willing to move to Kentucky from Puerto Rico for jobs paying 10, $12 an hour.

BENNETT: The lawsuit was eventually dismissed because the man's contract said the Puerto Rican Labor Department would handle any disputes. The factory hired incarcerated workers from at least two county jails as part of a special employment program. Seven inmates were working the night of the storm at the factory. They survived, but a jail deputy died. When Williams thinks about what he's lost, he wonders why anyone was there at all that night.

WILLIAMS: I just wish they had called and told them, no one come in till it's over, till we see what's going on, till it pass over.

BENNETT: State officials investigate any death that happens at a workplace. The governor said today that includes the people who died at the candle factory.

For NPR News, I'm Jared Bennett in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jared Bennett, Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

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