OLIVE HILL — U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell took a victory lap Thursday through a Kentucky garment factory he helped protect when the producer of Air Force jackets was threatened with losing work to federal prisoners.
McConnell chatted with workers over the whir of sewing machines, telling them he was glad their jobs were preserved, as he toured the Ashland Sales and Service plant in an area dogged by double-digit unemployment.
Company president Michael Mansh said the senator's intervention was instrumental in getting Federal Prison Industries to back off from pursuing a contract to make the Air Force jackets. That work has helped sustain the small plant at Olive Hill since the late 1990s.
"The odds were that if they had taken it, we were doomed immediately," Mansh said in an interview.
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The plant employs about 100 people. The average wage is about $9 an hour.
The dark-blue jackets churned out by the factory are issued to every member of the Air Force, enlistees and officers, and are sometimes worn by U.S. presidents. The plant also makes Army combat coats.
Workers said anxiety rose as Federal Prison Industries considered entering the competition for the contract.
"I'm glad they stepped down," said employee Martha Day.
Another worker, Paulette Lowe, said she would have resented losing work to prisoners.
"I think they need to find them something else to do. We're trying to work making a living in an honest way," she said.
Finding new work would have been challenging, she said. Olive Hill is in Carter County, where the unemployment rate was 12.4 percent in February.
The northeastern Kentucky factory wasn't alone in stressing over the prospect of losing work to prisoners.
A Campbellsville factory learned recently that Federal Prison Industries wouldn't bid on the contract it holds to make T-shirts for U.S. soldiers. McConnell, the state's senior senator, also interceded on behalf of Campbellsville Apparel Co.
McConnell said Thursday that turning over work to prisoners would have destroyed private-sector jobs.
"What happened here in Olive Hill is an example of how the government is getting in the way, making it harder for the private sector to do what it does, which is to grow and hire people and produce products for our folks," McConnell told reporters.
He has introduced legislation that would require the director of the Bureau of Prisons to be appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate. He filed the bill after interceding on behalf of the Kentucky garment makers.
Meanwhile, Ashland Sales and Service is hoping to win the next contract to produce the Air Force jackets; bids were due earlier this week. The company has put in bids to produce other apparel products for the Pentagon, Mansh said. Whether that increases the work force at the Olive Hill plant will depend on which contracts it lands and the military's demand for the products, he said.