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U.S. jobless claims rise, data for several states estimated

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits rose for a third straight week last week, but that likely does not suggest a material shift in labor market conditions as data for several states, including California, were estimated.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 250,000 for the week ended Dec. 30, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 240,000 in the latest week. Claims tend to be volatile around holidays. Data for California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming were estimated.

In addition, the Labor Department said claims-taking procedures continued to be disrupted in the Virgin Islands months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the islands.

It said claims processing in Puerto Rico was still not back to normal.

Last week marked the 148th straight week that claims remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is associated with a strong labor market. That is the longest such stretch since 1970, when the labor market was much smaller.

The labor market is near full employment, with the jobless rate at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.

Minutes of the Federal Reserve's Dec. 12-13 policy meeting published on Wednesday showed officials at the U.S. central bank upbeat about the economy and labor market prospects. Fed officials viewed economic activity as "rising at a solid rate," and the labor market as continuing to strengthen.

The central bank raised interest rates three times last year and has forecast three rate hikes in 2018.

Some economists, however, expect the Fed to increase borrowing costs four times this year, citing the $1.5 trillion tax cut package passed by the Republican-led U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last month.

Last week, the four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, increased 3,500 to 241,750.

The claims report has no impact on December's employment report, due to be released on Friday. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls probably increased by 190,000 in December after gaining 228,000 in November.

The unemployment rate is seen unchanged at 4.1 percent. Thursday's claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 37,000 to 1.91 million in the week ended Dec. 23.

The four-week moving average of the so-called continuing claims rose 750 to 1.92 million.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao, Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry)