Cooper described the incident Wednesday and said it was the first time she had traveled for her marketing and communications job at MassBay Community College, leaving her two boys — Teddy, who is 3 1/2 years old, and Camden, a 4-month-old boy whom she is breastfeeding.
But a spokesman for United disagreed with part of her side of the story, saying the employee near the gate was “not directing the customer to use the pet-relief area.” Instead Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman, said the agent’s “intention was to explain that the only rooms that were private at that time were the family restroom or pet-relief room.”
Monday started this way for Cooper: She said she woke up about 2:45 a.m., pumped at 3:30 a.m. before she left her home and went to Boston’s Logan International Airport. She had a layover at Dulles and decided to pump in case she ran into “some sort of issue of being stuck on the runway” when she landed in Harrisburg, Pa.
When she landed at Dulles about 8 a.m., a woman who worked for United who was standing just outside the gate area asked if she and her co-worker needed help.
Cooper answered “yes” and explained she was a nursing mother. Was there a place she could go to pump her breast milk?
The employee, according to Cooper, told her “‘You can go to a family restroom.'” Cooper said she told the woman that it was not sanitary to pump in a bathroom.
Cooper said the woman then told her she could go to a pet relief area.
At that point, Cooper said she and her co-worker looked at each other in a bit of shock and disbelief. Cooper said she told the worker “I don’t think that would work.”
According to Cooper, the United employee told her, “There haven’t been a lot of dogs in the airport today.” Again, Cooper said she and her co-worker looked at each other and Cooper recalled how she thought to herself “this can’t be happening.”
Cooper said she and her co-worker walked away, both puzzled. She said she then walked to a United club area and waited in line. Again, Cooper said she explained to an employee that she was a nursing mom and was seeking a private spot she could use to plug in her breast pump to express her milk.
He told her that because she wasn’t a member of United’s club she couldn’t come into the private area. She said the man told her to use the family restroom.
At that point, Cooper said she and her colleague decided to check out the family bathroom to see if there was a spot where she could pump.
They looked. “It was a bathroom,” Cooper said. “It was dirty. It was gross. That’s where you do your business.”
“There was no shelf, no outlet,” she said. “I couldn’t pump in there.”
After the two left the restroom, Cooper said they decided to look at the pet relief area and see if “that would even be possible” to pump in there. The door was open, she said, leading to an area of fake grass and a red fire hydrant. The area is typically used for travelers who have service animals that need to relieve themselves.
“I’m a dog lover, I get it,” Cooper said. But she said she told her co-worker, “This is not going to work.” She did snap a few pictures of the room and posted them to Twitter.
Cooper said she “snapped a few pictures because I can’t believe this is where they thought it would be appropriate” to use a breast pump.
United said it spoke with the agent who Cooper encountered at the gate. Johnson, the United spokesman, said the agent said there were a couple of gates without people and that the only private areas “we have at that time were the family restroom and the pet-relief area.”
“Those two locations came up in conversation,” Johnson said. He said the agent’s intent was not to tell her to use the pet-relief area. He said employees are told to “accommodate a nursing mom.”
“If a nursing mom chooses to nurse in a gate area, she has a right to do that,” Johnson said. “We are going to accommodate the nursing mom the best we can.”
MWAA — the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs both Dulles and Reagan National airports — said in a statement that it “regrets that a mother was unable to find a suitable area for nursing at the airport, and we apologize for her experience.”
“We have been working for many months to design new spaces throughout the airport to accommodate nursing mothers,” read a statement from Kimberly Gibbs, a spokeswoman for MWAA. She said Dulles will have eight nursing lounges available later this year. There is one nursing lounge at Reagan National airport that recently opened, and there are plans, according to MWAA, to open “additional lounges” there soon.
By law, a place that employs 50 or more people has to provide a place, other than a bathroom, for employees to express milk. And more and more places, including Nationals Park, are putting in rooms for breast-feeding mothers.
Cooper recalled that she told her co-worker, “What am I going to do? I have to pump before we get on this flight.” The two found a dark area at a gate that was relatively empty — save for five people nearby — and Cooper set up her breast pump and sat down facing the wall. With her co-worker trying to shield her, she pumped.
Cooper said she looked up at her colleague and asked, “‘Is this really happening?'”
On Wednesday, Cooper said she finds it “unbelievable” that this situation unfolded at a major airport.
“This is the year 2015,” she said Wednesday. “It is not like this is ground breaking. It’s not like I’m a ground-breaking, breast feeding woman out there.”
Cooper said two United employees reached out to her Tuesday and apologized. She said they also offered to meet her and provide her with a place to pump upon her return through Dulles on Wednesday afternoon.
Cooper said she hoped her experience “helps other women.”
“I think this is a teachable moment for people who don’t understand,” she said. “If I can educate them on how important having a place for women to do this is, then I’m happy. I just want them to fix the problem or have a backup plan.”