US tornadoes: Factory workers told they would be sacked if they left before storm, employees claim

Workers at a candle factory in Kentucky said they were told they would be sacked if they left their shifts early due to an approaching tornado – which later destroyed the building and killed at least eight people there.

Mayfield Consumer Products, which makes scented candles, was levelled on Friday during a surge of tornadoes that has claimed the lives of at least 88 people – including 74 in Kentucky.

Another 105 are unaccounted for.

For hours, as word of the coming storm spread, as many as 15 workers beseeched managers to let them take shelter at their own homes, only to have their requests rebuffed, according to at least five staff members.

Fearing for their safety, some left during their shifts regardless of the warnings they received from supervisors.

McKayla Emery, 21, told NBC News workers first asked to leave shortly after tornado sirens sounded outside the factory around 5:30pm.

Employees congregated in bathrooms and inside hallways, but the real tornado wouldn’t arrive for several more hours.

After employees decided that the immediate danger had passed, several began asking to go home, the workers said.

Ms Emery said she overheard managers tell four workers standing near her who wanted to leave: “If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired.”

About 15 people asked to go home during the night shift shortly after the first emergency alarm sounded outside the facility, said another employee, Haley Conder, 29.

There was a three-to-four-hour window between the first and second emergency alarms when workers should have been allowed to go home, she said.

Initially, Ms Conder said, team leaders told her they wouldn’t let workers leave because of safety precautions, so they kept everyone in the hallways and the bathrooms.

Once they mistakenly thought the tornado was no longer a danger, they sent everyone back to work, employees said.

Elijah Johnson, 20, said he was told he would be sacked if he left, adding that managers went so far as to take a roll call in hopes of finding out who had left work.

Company officials denied the allegations.

“It’s absolutely untrue,” said Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for Mayfield Consumer Products. “We’ve had a policy in place since COVID began. Employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.”

He also denied that managers told employees that leaving their shifts meant risking their jobs.

Mr Ferguson said managers and team leaders undergo a series of emergency drills that follow guidelines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Those protocols are in place and were followed,” he said.

Autumn Kirks, a team lead at the factory who was working that night, denied Monday afternoon on MSNBC that people’s jobs were threatened if they didn’t go in.

The first tornado warning passed without any damage, but several hours later, another warning was issued.

Once the second tornado siren sounded sometime after 9pm Friday, Ms Conder and a group of others approached three managers asking to go home.

“‘You can’t leave. You can’t leave. You have to stay here,'” Conder said the managers told her. “The situation was bad. Everyone was uncomfortable.”

As the storm moved forward after the second siren, the employees took shelter. The lights in the building started to flicker.

Moments later, Ms Emery, who was standing near the candle wax and fragrance room, was struck in the head by a piece of concrete.

“I heard a loud noise and the next thing I know, I was stuck under a cement wall,” she said. “I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t push anything. I was stuck.”

Emery, who was trapped for six hours and is now receiving hospital treatment, had several chemical burn marks on her legs, her buttocks and her forehead from the candle wax.

She also sustained kidney damage, her urine is black, and she still can’t move her legs because of the swelling and from having been motionless for so long.

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