After leaving Indiana for a nursing job at Miami's Nicklaus Children's Hospital, Daniele Hoffman threw herself into her new workplace, organizing hospital-wide activities, mentorship programs, and potlucks.
But she says she never fit in because she's white and doesn't speak Spanish. In a federal lawsuit against the hospital, Hoffman says staff discriminated against her, called her "gringa" and "skinny white girl," and insisted on speaking Spanish around her.
"Despite Daniele's dedication to [NCH], she suffered severe discrimination on the job because of her race, color, and national origin," reads the suit, which also claims she was retaliated against for telling on hospital staff who drank coquito at work.
Hoffman claims she had no choice but to quit due to her treatment from co-workers.
A spokesperson for Nicklaus Children's Hospital (formerly Miami Children's Hospital) tells New Times the hospital "steadfastly denies the allegations" in the suit.
"The Hospital is an equal employment opportunity employer and is committed to providing its employees with a work environment free of discrimination and harassment," Jennifer Caminas writes in an email. "The Hospital is also committed to a drug- and alcohol-free workplace and strictly enforces this policy."
According to the complaint, filed by Miami attorney Paul Penichet in Miami-Dade County Civil Court before being moved to federal court last week, Hoffman began working as a neurosurgery operating room nurse at the Miami hospital in January 2014. The alleged discrimination started soon thereafter.
Hoffman claims that beyond making her less confident in her abilities on the job, her co-workers' behavior made her worry about the safety of patients.
"Anesthesiologists, nurses, and surgical technicians insisted on speaking Spanish during surgical procedures despite Daniele's inability to understand Spanish and her continuous requests that they speak English for the safety of the child patient," the suit says.
She claims that when she complained to her supervisors, she was told "that's just the culture around here" and she should "get tougher skin." She says she was also told she'd better learn Spanish.
Things took a turn for the worse, Hoffman says, in November 2014 in the break room of the OR, where she spotted shot glasses and a bottle of coquito, a coconut-based alcoholic beverage that's popular in Puerto Rico during the holidays. According to her account of the incident, she asked whether it was alcoholic after a technician offered her a shot. Told it was, she informed him it was illegal to drink on the job in the OR. The tech responded defensively: "It's not like one will get you drunk or anything."
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After Hoffman reported the incident to her supervisor, she says, her co-workers ignored her for the duration of her 12-hour shifts and switched from English to Spanish whenever she walked into the break room. She claims she was also warned that others were trying to dig up dirt on her so she'd get in trouble.
A supervisor told Hoffman that human resources ultimately decided not to fire anyone involved because it was "a lawsuit waiting to happen," the complaint claims. At a Christmas party, those involved in the incident chanted "coquito!" and laughed.
"Based on the staff's absolute refusal to change its 'culture,' being told repeatedly to learn Spanish so she could be part of the culture, the absolutely sophomoric and juvenile actions of the staff, including doctors and supervisors, the intentional discrimination and refusal to investigate it or correct it, and the retaliation for reporting illegal conduct," Hoffman quit in January 2015.
She has since moved back to Indiana.