Twin Cities hospital officials said Wednesday that they are "deeply disappointed" that a nurses' union rejected its offer for a new contract proposal that included compromises on pension and staffing ratios, two key issues for the nurses.

The Minnesota Nurses Association rejected the offer in talks that lasted until about 1 a.m. Wednesday, saying the hospitals made the proposal at 11 p.m. Tuesday and gave the union only an hour to "take it or leave it."

The hospitals said they would withdraw the offer unless the union agreed to postpone a strike, scheduled for July 6, and immediately recommend the proposal to its members.

"They sprang it on us at the last minute," said MNA spokesman John Nemo.

The union offered to meet again today, but no new talks are scheduled, said Maureen Schriner, spokeswoman for the hospitals.

As part of the last-minute contract offer, the 14 hospitals said they would back off their demand to reduce pension benefits, and offered to commit to a collaborative effort to explore ways to ease nurse workloads. Nurse-to-patient staffing ratios are the key issues for the union. The MNA says nurses are stretched too thin, and patient safety is at risk. Nurses have proposed cementing ratios in their contract, but the hospitals have rejected it, saying that it would cost them $250 million year without evidence that it improves the quality of patient care.

"This is a reasonable offer," the hospitals said in a written statement Wednesday morning. "There is no reason for the union to refuse serious consideration of the hospitals' offer and present this new contract proposal to its members."

The nurses union has scheduled "strike preparation" meetings for members on Wednesday at its St. Paul headquarters.

Also Tuesday, several Twin Cities hospitals said they believe a significant number of nurses may be willing to cross the picket line in the event of a strike next week.

Allina Clinics & Hospitals, the Twin Cities' biggest hospital group, sent a letter to employees saying, "We have received inquiries from many nurses who plan to cross the picket lines." It also advised them to resign from the MNA before the strike to avoid union penalties.

The union said there was no evidence that many nurses will break ranks. "Only 1 percent of our nurses crossed the picket line on June 10," said Nemo, "and we don't anticipate the number will be dramatically higher in the event of an open-ended strike."

It was impossible to confirm how many of the 12,000 nurses might actually cross a picket line, but the number is critical because it could dictate whether hospitals can weather a strike or the union can pressure management into a settlement.

At Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, officials said at least 10 percent of their 1,000 unionized nurses are expected to defy a strike and come to work. "We have a number that's growing," Dr. David Abelson, the chief executive, said in an interview.

However, Nemo noted that since March, "only 42 Twin Cities nurses [out of 12,000] have resigned their membership in our union. We simply don't have any evidence to corroborate the Twin Cities Hospitals' claims."

Both sides have said they don't want a strike but are ready for one.

Meanwhile, the number of out-of-state replacement nurses prepared to work during a strike continues to grow.

About 825 would-be replacements have applied for licenses to work in Minnesota since Friday, said Shirley Brekken, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Nursing.

She said about 4,400 out-of-state nurses overall have applied for licensure since May 1, many from Florida, Alabama and Texas.

Allina said union nurses who wish to work during the strike must notify their hospitals before the strike date, or they will be listed on "strike status."

Allina, which has five hospitals under threat of strike, also advised nurses who plan to strike to "clean out their lockers" and return hospital-owned pagers and cell phones before the walkout. • 612-673-7394 • 612-673-7384