MAYFIELD, Ky. — Prison inmates, formerly incarcerated people and those simply out of luck were all welcomed at the Mayfield Consumer Products’ candle factory — a last-resort job for many in the unemployment line, several employees said.
The work — packaging and labeling scented candles that wound up in kitchens and bathrooms across America — was easy, some workers said, if you didn’t mind the long hours, low wages and open-door hiring that allowed walk-ins and those previously fired.
“It’s a sweatshop. We’re underpaid. I felt like they weren’t for us,” said David Hollowell, 28, who has been working at the factory for a year to provide for his two children. “Anyone can get a job there.”
The company’s labor practices and managerial decisions have come under scrutiny after a monstrous tornado tore through the building last week killing eight workers and injuring many more.
Five employees told NBC News that supervisors threatened to fire as many as 15 workers who wanted to leave work as the deadly tornado approached.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of some of the workers alleges the company showed “flagrant indifference” to them on the night of the tornado. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
“Our managers acted heroically on the night of the storm. Their actions saved the lives of many of our valued employees and these claims are wrong and they’re offensive to the heroic managers,” company spokesman Bob Ferguson said Friday.
Meanwhile, the state Occupational Safety and Health Program is looking into the candle factory’s operation on the night of the tornado, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday, adding that the inquiry “shouldn’t suggest there was any wrongdoing.” The state agency probes any workplace incident that ends in a death “as a matter of course,” Beshear said.
NBC News interviewed seven employees and an attorney who represented former employees for this story. Some workers described the factory as being staffed primarily by temporary workers who are typically laid off toward the end of their probationary period only to be rehired days later.
“It’s a place for the have-nots,” said Mark Saxton, 37, who has worked for the company on nine occasions. “If you can’t get a job nowhere, you can get a job at the candle [factory]. I can quit on a Tuesday and come back the next week. They take whoever. If you apply, you’re starting that day.”
Saxton, who was previously incarcerated for drug and gun crimes, said he’s grateful the factory provides for gainful employment.
Ferguson declined on Friday to answer questions about the employees’ descriptions of working at the factory before the tornado strike.
Mayfield CEO Troy Propes told NBC News this week that no one was forced to stay at the factory the night the tornado hit. The company is “retaining an independent expert team to review the actions of our management team and employees” on the day of the tornado strike, he said.
MaKayla Emery, 21, had been working at the factory through a pretrial diversion program after being arrested for stealing a gun.
Emery, who was hospitalized with several injuries after being trapped under a slab of concrete for six hours following the tornado, said the job has brought her stability and has taught her how to work well with others.
“I can’t go be the nurse I wanted to because of my background,” she said. “For many of us, that’s the only place we can go.”
Still, the company has previously drawn scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration federal office. The agency fined the company $16,350 in 2019 for 12 violations, seven of which were considered “serious,” including control of hazardous energy.
In 2020, the company reported 14 injuries, or about 4.2 per 100 full-time employees. None of the injuries were fatal.
John Caudill, a former assistant U.S. prosecutor turned whistleblower lawyer, said for years the company has recruited dozens of economically depressed workers from Puerto Rico.
He represented Armando Rivera Hernandez in Kentucky state court in 2019.
Hernandez, who relocated to Kentucky from Puerto Rico to work at the factory, was allegedly fired on his first day for being overweight, Caudill said.
The suit was dismissed because Hernandez and other candle factory employees signed an agreement that any lawsuits or claims against the company will be filed through the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources instead of the Kentucky court system, he said.
Officials with the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources couldn’t be reached for comment.
“I didn’t get to litigate my case,” Caudill said.
Hernandez’s suit included a text message allegedly from Mayfield Consumer Products’ Chief Financial Officer, stating “We are working diligently to clean up the epileptic, obese, pregnant, and special needs issues[.]”
Caudill said he was prepared to represent eight to 10 more workers who claim they were fired from the company for reasons including being pregnant and epileptic.
Ferguson declined to respond Friday to requests for comment about Caudill’s comments.
Mayfield Consumer Products officials have previously told NBC News that they offer flexible hours, allowing workers to show up and/or leave without penalty anytime they want.
Low-level inmates from the Graves County Jail also worked at the plant through a work-release program.
Employees said there was no drug testing at the facility and that someone who was fired could easily return to work after 30 days.
Many employees earned $8 to $10 per hour until they reached an incentive pay bump after working 50 hours in a week, employees who spoke with NBC News said.
Elijah Johnson, 20, said he once worked 62 hours in six days and brought home $780 after taxes.
“The best part about working there is you don’t have to work as hard as other jobs,” he said.
Kim Hendrickson, 40, also didn’t mind working at the facility.
As a floater who held multiple responsibilities, she said she kept to herself and focused on her tasks.
“It was a normal job. I mean, every job has its flaws,” Hendrickson said. “I clocked in, did my job and went home.”
This is her second time working at the candle factory. She previously worked there for five years but wound up moving to Michigan to care for her mother.
Hendrickson returned to Kentucky recently and found steady employment hard to come by. Her best option was to return to the familiar factory.
She was working at the factory when the tornado descended on it. All of her ribs were broken, and her pelvis was fractured, she said.