WASHINGTON — Representative Pramila Jayapal was walking a fine line when she arrived at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters on a chilly day last October to meet with some of the company’s top executives.
A liberal Democrat, Ms. Jayapal wanted to raise concerns about Amazon’s dominance and treatment of its workers. But her district, which includes much of Seattle, is home to many white-collar Amazon employees who may be unsympathetic to attacks on the company.
She hoped to address her concerns privately. As the hours wore on, though, Ms. Jayapal felt she was getting nowhere, she said in her first extended interview about her relationship with Amazon. She would raise a concern, only to be told by the executives that there was no truth to the stories that had been reported.
Now, after months of rising frustration with the company, she is taking her concerns public. “I try to have these discussions,” she said, “but I’m at the end of the private line.”
Ms. Jayapal’s changing approach reflects the increasing criticism of Amazon. On Friday, she joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers who called for Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, to testify before Congress. A big part of the reason they want to hear from him are concerns that an Amazon lawyer may have misled Ms. Jayapal during a hearing last summer.
Many progressives like Ms. Jayapal argue that the internet giant exploits workers and abuses its market power. Those criticisms have become louder during the coronavirus pandemic, which has made the public more dependent on Amazon’s store and put the workers who keep it humming under intense pressure.
But no other national elected official with Ms. Jayapal’s liberal politics has a district filled with Amazon’s corporate employees, who could be skeptical of her criticism but have become increasingly concerned about the company’s treatment of workers in its supply chain.
“Two things can be true at the same time,” Ms. Jayapal said. “A company can be doing tremendous work that is incredibly valued and essential, and it can be treating workers badly.”
Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, disputed in a statement that Ms. Jayapal had engaged in good faith with the company.
“We have tried to build a constructive relationship with Representative Jayapal, but that has proven difficult given her seeming lack of interest in getting to know our company and the facts,” Mr. Herdener said. “For example, she claims to have concerns about employee safety, yet she’s declined our invitation to visit a fulfillment center to see for herself, and chose instead to attack us in the media.”
Ms. Jayapal, 54, was elected to the House in 2016 after a stint as a state legislator and a career an activist, jobs that had put her at odds with some of the major companies that call Seattle home.
“When I came in, I made a round of calls to everybody, and I said, ‘Look, I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I represent the district and you’re an employer in the district, and I want to hear what you have to say,’” she said.
She rose to become a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a prominent voice on the national left.
These days, Ms. Jayapal is hunkered down with her family in Seattle when she’s not in the nation’s capital. The pandemic, she said, has made them more reliant on home deliveries, like groceries from a Seattle food cooperative that works with Instacart. They maintain an Amazon Prime membership for the occasional household purchase.
“I do feel some heartburn around inconsistency here with my frustrations around the things I’m seeing with some of the workers and then the fact that I’m using the service,” Ms. Jayapal said.
She said she had been “careful” about how she handled her criticism of Amazon. She said she thought she had “a responsibility to the people who work for Amazon, because they are my constituents, and a responsibility to the company to make sure that I’m trying to engage in a dialogue at least before making judgments.”
But by last fall, she had become more exasperated, Ms. Jayapal said. After she asked the company for a meeting, her office said, Amazon sent a handful of people, including David Zapolsky, its general counsel.
The conversation became “tense,” Ms. Jayapal said, when she outlined her concerns about worker safety and other issues, including a report from an undercover journalist in Britain that employees had been urinating in water bottles because the warehouses had limited bathrooms.
“I was getting really just a denial, almost, that any of these things were true, that any of these reports were true,” she said. She said the Amazon executives had suggested “that there are people who are out to get us.”
Amazon said it had hoped to use the meeting to build a relationship with Ms. Jayapal, describing Mr. Zapolsky as a progressive leader. The company said Ms. Jayapal had been especially focused on the British report, which it said was not true.
Not long after, Amazon started backing City Council candidates who opposed Seattle’s most liberal legislators. Ms. Jayapal publicly rebuked the company for getting involved in the campaigns.
Her concerns grew as she spoke with some Amazon workers about conditions in the warehouses, she said.
Among them was Maren Costa, a principal user experience designer at Amazon who was pressuring the company to address climate change and improve working conditions in its warehouses. Not long after Ms. Costa spoke with Ms. Jayapal last month, she and another internal activist were fired.
The workers argued that the firings were retaliation for their criticism. Amazon has said they had violated company policies; they said they had been told that they broke a rule against solicitation by asking fellow employees to sign a petition asking for better conditions in the warehouses.
Ms. Costa said she and her fellow activists were “extremely heartened by the outpouring of support from elected officials and labor leaders,” including Ms. Jayapal.
Ms. Jayapal’s concerns were heightened in late April when The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon employees had consulted data from individual sellers on Amazon’s platform in deciding whether to produce some private-label products. It raised questions about whether an Amazon lawyer truthfully answered a question about the data that Ms. Jayapal asked at a congressional hearing last year.
Ms. Jayapal said she was troubled by “the fact that they may have lied to me.” She said she had discussed referring the Amazon lawyer for a criminal perjury investigation, among other options, with leaders of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust investigation into Amazon and other large tech companies.
“It’s simply incorrect to say that Amazon was intentionally misleading in our testimony,” said Mr. Herdener, the Amazon spokesman. “While we don’t believe these claims made by The Wall Street Journal are accurate, we take these allegations very seriously and have launched an internal investigation.”
Ms. Jayapal sent Mr. Bezos a letter outlining her concerns with the company the day after the Journal article appeared online. She suggested that the company provide hazard pay for workers and give them more information about its coronavirus response. A week later, she and her colleagues demanded his public testimony.
Asked what she would tell a constituent who worked for Amazon about her decision to take on the company directly, Ms. Jayapal offered this:
“We are grateful for your work,” she said. “And this isn’t about you. It is about how the management of Amazon and the corporation as a whole treats all of its workers.”
Kate Conger contributed reporting from Oakland, Calif.
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