Employers left workers to die during the Midwest tornadoes
The storms that ripped across the country exposed a new frontier of labor issues.
This weekend, powerful tornadoes swept through the South and Midwest, leaving entire towns devastated. Growing up in the Midwest, I’ve received lectures on tornado safety numerous times. But with at least 88 people confirmed dead across several states so far, it’s hard to linger on individual preparedness. As stories come in about factory workers being forced to remain at their jobs throughout the storm, it’s clear that this isn’t just a story about natural disasters, but about labor rights, too.
On Friday, at least eight employees were killed after a tornado struck a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky. Although employees had several hours before the sirens first began and the tornado hit to vacate, NBC News reported that workers were told by supervisors that they would be fired if they left their shifts early. One employee, Haley Conder, told the outlet that team leaders at first wouldn’t let people leave due to safety precautions. Then, after they believed the tornado was no longer a threat, everyone was sent back to work.
But that night, Mayfield would become one of the worst-hit cities in Kentucky. When the tornado struck, it completely destroyed the candle factory. During a news conference, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) stated that dozens were feared dead. He told reporters, “They rescued 40. There's at least 15 feet of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there, it will be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it."
Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for Mayfield Consumer Products, denied the allegations that employees had been threatened with termination if they left work ahead of the storm. Ferguson told NBC News, “It’s absolutely untrue. 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.” Since Friday, the company has set up a 24-hour hotline for employees to call about hazard pay, grief counseling, and any other assistance they need.
The deaths of the Mayfield factory workers are shocking enough. That same night, however, Amazon warehouse workers in Edwardsville, Illinois, experienced something eerily similar. On Friday, six workers died after a tornado caused the warehouse to completely collapse. According to messages obtained by More Perfect Union, one deceased worker, Larry Virden, texted his girlfriend, “Amazon won’t let us leave.”
Tornadoes touched down in at least nine states in recent days, including Tennessee and Arkansas. While the total death count is still unknown, Kentucky is the worst impacted state so far with at least 74 people confirmed dead. Beshear told reporters Monday that the number is “fluid,” and that “undoubtedly, there will be more.”
According to ABC News, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states there’s an average of 69 tornado-related fatalities in the U.S. each year. In response to this weekend’s events, President Biden has declared a state of emergency in Kentucky, Illinois, and Tennessee. For Kentucky specifically, Biden has approved disaster declaration which allows the state to receive federal aid to help with its recovery.
Biden has plans to visit Kentucky on Wednesday and tour the damages in both Mayfield and Dawson Springs, where 13 people have been declared dead after the storm. After being briefed by administration officials Monday, Biden told reporters, "It’s a town that has been wiped out, but it’s not the only town, it’s not the only town. That [tornado] path you see moves all the way up to well over 100 miles, and there’s more than one route it goes."
It’s easy to focus on incoming reports as devastation caused by weather only. But the stories from the Mayfield candle factory and Amazon workers in Edwardsville reveal that this is just as much of a labor concern as fair wages. As workers have gone on strike at factories nationwide this year, safe working conditions have been brought up again and again. Now, the tornadoes have revealed the devastation that can come when workers were dehumanized and denied proper resources or training.
On Monday, a representative for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed it has opened an investigation into the collapse of the Amazon warehouse. However, there is still a lot of alarming information coming out of Amazon facilities. Business Insider recently reported that workers are speaking out against its phone ban; although it had been briefly lifted during the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has begun rolling it out once more.
Workers are concerned that, without access to their phones, they won’t be able to stay updated if any crisis situations occur. “After these deaths, there is no way in hell I am relying on Amazon to keep me safe,” an Amazon worker from an Illinois facility near the Edwardsville warehouse told Bloomberg. “If they institute the no cell phone policy, I am resigning.”
Cell phones aren’t the only issue. At both Amazon and, it seems, the Mayfield facility, a total lack of emergency training for both workers and their supervisors is becoming apparent. According to a report from The Intercept, Amazon has failed to adequately provide its workers with emergency training for years. The outlet also reported that internal help ticket messages related to the Illinois facility showed that the company failed to tell anyone about the tornado even while it was happening. The messages were obtained by an employee who screenshotted them before Amazon encrypted the records.
“Corporate and IT were troubleshooting network outages and found out the building was hit by a tornado from the media,” the employee told The Intercept. “What the correspondence showed was that initially, nobody knew what was happening. More and more people joined in on the tickets to troubleshoot the issues, only to find out from the media that the building was hit by a tornado.”