Mayfield Candle Factory Employees Sue Company for 'Flagrant Indifference' About Severe Weather

Workers who survived the deadly collapse of a Kentucky candle factory during an outbreak of tornadoes are suing their employer for "flagrant indifference" in allegedly refusing to let them leave early.

Eight employees at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory in Kentucky were killed in the collapse nearly a week ago, and some have accused the company of threatening to fire them if they left.

The factory had "up to three and half hours before the tornado hit its place of business to allow its employees to leave its worksite as safety precautions," the lawsuit alleges. The filing adds that the factory displayed "flagrant indifference" to the workers' rights in threatening disciplinary action to stop them from going home.

When the tornado leveled the factory in Mayfield and left nothing but rubble, officials initially thought the death toll could be as high as 70.

At least five factory workers have accused their supervisors of saying that employees would lose their jobs if they left their shifts early. Employees asked to leave the site as early as 5:30 p.m. Friday, shortly after the first tornado warning siren sounded, according to employee McKayla Emery.

Emery, 21, said that she heard managers tell a few workers standing nearby that they were "more than likely to be fired" if they left. Another worker, 20-year-old Elijah Johnson, told NBC that he had asked to leave along with several other employees, but "they told me I'd be fired."

In the hours leading up to the collapse, employee Haley Condor said supervisors initially cited safety reasons in refusing to let workers leave and kept them in hallways and bathrooms. When management determined that the tornado no longer posed a threat, they had employees return to work.

Supervisors also took a roll call to see who had left, Johnson said, though a company spokesman denied the accusation.

Collapsed Kentucky Factory
Workers who survived the deadly collapse of a Kentucky candle factory during an outbreak of tornadoes are suing their employer for "flagrant indifference" in allegedly refusing to let them leave early. Above, the factory in Mayfield on December 12, 2021. Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

The lawsuit filed in state court accuses the company of violating Kentucky occupational safety and health workplace standards by keeping its staff at work. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Mayfield Consumer Products.

A spokesman for the company has previously insisted that employees were free to leave anytime. The spokesman did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.

Conder, one of the employees, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that a supervisor threatened her with written disciplinary action if she went home early because storms were approaching.

Conder also questioned why the company did not encourage workers to go home—or at least give them a better understanding of the danger—between a first tornado siren around 6 p.m. Friday and another one around 9 p.m., shortly before the tornado hit.

The lawsuit was filed less than a week after the storms that began Friday night destroyed lives and property from Arkansas to Illinois and in parts of neighboring states, carving a more than 200-mile (320-kilometer) path through Kentucky alone.

More than 100 people were working on candle orders when the twister flattened the Mayfield facility. The scale of the damage initially stoked fears that scores of workers could be found dead in the rubble. The company later said many employees who survived left the site and went to homes with no phone service, adding to the confusion over who was missing.

Since then, all workers have been accounted for, according to state and local officials who have spoken to the company.

Governor Andy Beshear has said that Kentucky's workplace safety agency would look into the eight deaths. That kind of investigation is routine whenever workers are killed on the job. The company has signaled that it welcomes a review by the state and will cooperate.

Kentucky Factory Ruins
Survivors of a tornado that leveled a Kentucky candle factory, killing eight workers, have filed a lawsuit claiming their employer demonstrated “flagrant indifference” by refusing to allow the employees to go home early. Above, emergency response workers dig through the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, on December 11, 2021. Timothy D. Easley/AP Photo