Mayfield Consumer Products (MCP) is under investigation by state workplace safety inspectors for its labor practices after managers allegedly threatened to fire employees if they called off, or left, their shift during a series of tornadoes beginning on Dec. 10.
Eight workers died when MCP’s candle-making factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, was destroyed during the storms.
The Kentucky Labor Cabinet and attorney John Caudill are investigating the facility after employees brought the alleged labor issues to their attention.
In a statement on Dec. 15, MCP’s ownership said it had retained an independent team to investigate the actions of its managers who might have not been following safety protocols.
Following a series of powerful tornadoes throughout Kentucky and parts of the Midwest over the weekend, there have been at least 74 people confirmed dead in Kentucky, including the eight inside the factory, according to Gov. Andy Beshear’s office.
The factory uses strong chemicals for its scented candles, and a number of people suffered chemical burns.
Caudill said it was unknown if the company had an emergency plan in place.
A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Labor Cabinet told The Epoch Times the company had an emergency action plan in place and employees had been trained on its emergency action plan.
“We have been made aware of workplace fatalities that occurred as a result of the catastrophic tornadoes that impacted the Mayfield area,” Labor Cabinet spokesperson Holly Neal told The Epoch Times on Dec. 14. “An investigation into the events is underway and could take up to six months to complete.”
Caudill, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1989 to 2005, said he is focusing on the working conditions at MCP following the allegations against managers.
Caudill, who is based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, said that he had been contacted by about “a half-dozen” employees who asked what their rights would be for not being allowed to call out from work, or leave, after the tornado warnings.
“That’s horrific if it’s true,” said Caudill, who has represented workers who fell victim to discriminatory hiring practices under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.
“I am hearing that there were a lot of workers who were nervous … about working that night.”
Many of the candle factory’s workers are from Puerto Rico and were inside working an overnight shift when the tornadoes ripped through the city of about 10,000 in southwestern Kentucky.
About 100 people were inside the building at the time.
The workers were hired at $8 an hour for 10-hour to 12-hour shifts, more than the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Bob Ferguson, an MCP spokesman who works for the Hawkbill Group in Washington, D.C., denied the claims that managers said they would fire workers if they didn’t work.
The company is owned by Mary Propes and is based in Charleston, South Carolina. MCP has operations in different states, and related business ventures in China and India, Caudill said.
In a statement issued on Dec. 14, MCP’s Chief Executive Troy Propes said, “We’re confident that our team leaders acted entirely appropriately and were, in fact, heroic in their efforts to shelter our employees.”
Propes added the company didn’t want to allow people to leave the building as the severe storms approached.
However, there were numerous reports from workers at the factory, who said they heard managers tell co-workers that “they could get fired” if they left on the night of the tornadoes.
“We are hearing accounts from a few employees that our procedures were not followed,” Propes said. “We’re going to do a thorough review of what happened, and we’re asking these experts to critique our emergency plans, and to offer any suggestions on ways they may be improved if any.”
Propes said that the company is giving $1,000 to each of its employees to help with expenses because of the tornadoes.
Ferguson said that similar to the CCP (Communist China Party) virus pandemic, people didn’t have to work during the tornado warnings if they didn’t want to.
“I am looking into whether the company was negligent in its protocols or preventing the deaths or injuries of its workers,” Caudill added. “When did they know about the tornado? What safeguards did they have in place?”
When the tornado struck on Dec. 10, the workers huddled in a hallway and sheltered in place, according to Ferguson and Troy Propes.
There were conflicting reports of whether the company held emergency drills. The company said it had.
MCP, which supplied candles to Bath and Body Works stores, was the third-largest employer in Graves County, according to the county’s website.
On March 8, 2019, the facility at 112 Industrial Drive in Mayfield was inspected by the Division of Compliance. The inspection resulted in three serious and five lesser citations. The citations listed problems with electrical protective equipment; maintenance, safeguards, and operational features for exit routes; and personal protective equipment.
MCP was fined $16,350, but after a formal settlement agreement was reached on July 7, the fines were reduced to $9,810, according to Labor Cabinet information provided to the Epoch Times.