Seven women who work at a Department of Health clinic in Haines City say they were hired because they speak both Spanish and English. But now the women, all from Puerto Rico, say they have been threatened with firing for speaking Spanish to each other in the office.

HAINES CITY – Seven women who work at a Department of Health clinic in Haines City say they were hired because they speak both Spanish and English.

But now the women, all from Puerto Rico, say they have been threatened with firing for speaking Spanish to each other in the office.

The women said they filed complaints last week with the Polk County Health Department’s Human Resources office and the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee.

The women produced a letter sent to them by a supervisor in which they were told that they might be dismissed if they continued their habit of speaking to each other in Spanish.

The Ledger requested comment Monday from the Florida Department of Health and has not yet received a response.

The women went public last week in an interview with El Nuevo Día, a Spanish-language publication. They drew additional attention to their complaints Monday afternoon during a news  conference at Wilson Park in Davenport.

"We speak in English to the Anglo-Saxons because we are polite, but we speak Spanish with each other because we think in Spanish,” Mairylí Miranda, a nurse, told El Nuevo El Nuevo Día. “But one day they gathered us all together and warned us that if we continued to do so, we would be fired. But there is no law that bans us from speaking Spanish."

The other employees are nurses Laura Rivera, Irkania Orama and Nilian Quiñones; María Rivera, an administrative assistant; and Débora Torres, a secretary.

The women have drawn support from the Respeta Mi Gente Coalition, which includes Alianza for Progress, Boricua Vota, Hispanic Federation, Misión Boricua and Organize Florida.

At the press conference Monday, the women spoke in Spanish as they addressed questions from Spanish-language media outlets. Peter Cora-Santiago, secretary of the Orlando-based Misión Boricua, spoke in English.

“I am really happy that you guys are exposing this discrimination because this not only happens in Haines City; this is happening all over Central Florida,” he said. “My mother works at a hospital — she works in Orlando – and I spoke to her about this situation, and she said it’s the same treatment that they have in Orlando. So for all the big companies and all big the employers who think it’s OK to discriminate based on language, we’re here to tell you this needs to stop.”

Cora-Santiago noted that the United States has no official language.

Leah West, an assistant to U.S. Rep. Darren Soto based in Polk County, spoke at the news conference and said Soto planned to write a letter in support of the women. Soto, whose district includes Haines City, has Puerto Rican ancestry.

Alex Barrio, political director of Alianza for Progress based in Orlando, said he found the letter troubling.

“You have a community that is predominantly Hispanic,” Barrio said before Monday’s news conference. “You have nurses that were hired specifically because they speak Spanish being told they cannot communicate in Spanish to each other or else they’ll be fired. That’s what the nurses are saying.”

Barrio said Latinos in Florida commonly receive criticism for speaking their native language, but he said he wasn’t aware of anyone previously being threatened with dismissal from a job.

“I personally have not heard of any situation like this,” he said. “This is new to me. You hear stories all the time about private restaurants and different businesses, but in terms of a state agency — no, I haven’t heard it.”

Krizia Lopez Arce, a community organizer with the Respeta Mi Gente Coalition, said her group put the women in touch with the Orlando office of LatinoJustice. That organization provides free  legal services on such issues as immigrant rights, economic justice and voting rights.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.