Rochester women: We were fired from jobs as drivers for Saudis

Three Rochester women who were hired last year to drive Saudi Arabian visitors around town as part of a visit by the royal family say they were fired because of their gender.

"The man who hired us told each of us ... the Saudis don't want women drivers," Barbara Herold said at a news conference Thursday. "It was really shocking."

Saudi Arabia bars women from driving.

The alleged incident in Rochester happened in October when members of the Saudi royal family were in Rochester for appointments at the Mayo Clinic. The three women were among many drivers who were hired to help the family and their entourage get around.

Herold said she, Gretchen Cooper and Lisa Boutelle began work on a Friday to pick up visitors from the airport. They were fired a day later.

The three are asking the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate their claims, which could result in a discrimination lawsuit against the companies who fired them. An EEOC spokeswoman said the agency doesn't disclose information about complaints until officials decide whether to proceed with a lawsuit.

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Gender Justice, a Minnesota advocacy group, is helping with the complaint. Jill Gaulding, co-founder of Gender Justice, identified the three companies as Crown Prince Limousines and Premier Crescent Services, both of Rochester, and Highland Transportation of New York.

A woman who answered the phone for Highland said the company is aware of the allegations but referred a reporter to the company's owner, who was not immediately available. The Rochester companies couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

The women said they decided to announce their case to coincide with Saudi Arabian women activists' "Women2Drive" campaign to urge the country to allow women to drive. On Friday, the women and their supporters will participate in an event on East Lake Street in Minneapolis to hand out green ribbons and take photos of women drivers that will be sent on to the Saudi Arabian embassy.

Herold said she was motivated to go public after reading about a female activist in Saudi Arabia who was arrested after publicizing a video of herself driving.

"She has no recourse," Herold said. "I lost my job, but what she lost is a great deal more."

Cooper said she was especially surprised to lose her job because she held a similar driving job for six weeks in 2008 during an earlier visit by members of the Saudi royal family.

"It was one of the best, positive experiences I've ever had in my life," Cooper said. "They just took me in like I was part of their family, and I was allowed to sit at dinner tables and be invited into private conversations."

Gaulding said the royal family's visit to Rochester and the economic impact it had was well publicized. But she said there's more to the story.

"Certainly Rochester benefits from having these international visitors come, but we have to think about how it affects people like Gretchen as well," she said. "We don't want them to be excluded."

"They just can't believe they could be fired for being female in Minnesota in the year 2010," Gaulding added.

Editors note: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect last name for one of the women on first reference. She is Gretchen Cooper, not Gretchen Hoffman.